Legislators, teachers spar on ed funding

State’s fiscal issues brought into focus


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Rep. Dan Saddler, left, and Rep. Lora Reinbold listen to constituents during a Town Hall meeting held Saturday, March 23, 2013 at the Eagle River Town Center.

MATT TUNSETH

Education funding was a hot topic March 23 during a Town Hall meeting featuring local State House representatives Lora Reinbold and Dan Saddler.

About a dozen teachers from Eagle River High turned out to make their case for state funding of education, which they argued hasn’t kept up with schools’ needs.

“I’m concerned about the impact it’s going to have on our school,” said Jacob Bera, an art teacher at ERHS.

The Anchorage School District’s most recent budget calls for cutting 215 positions. Although those cuts don’t include teachers, many of those in attendance said they were worried future cuts could impact classroom teachers.

“Those class sizes are going to get huge,” said ERHS English teacher Luke Almon.

But while teachers spoke passionately about their jobs (one even broke briefly into song), the two legislators said the state is in no position to increase the amount of money it sends to local districts.

“It’s just not the right time with our oil production going down,” Reinbold said.

Both Reinbold and Saddler seemed to argue that local districts should try to become more efficient. Reinbold pointed out that the Anchorage district has lost more than 1,000 students in the past decade while both state funding for education and teacher salaries have risen — the latter faster than the cost of living. The freshman legislator said she feels for teachers worried about cuts at the district level, but that the state has little choice but to be frugal with its budget.

“I can tell you there’s a lot of really hard decisions being made on our part,” she said.

ERHS teacher Valerie Spencer said she’s worried about possibly losing her job. As a second-year teacher, she doesn’t have tenure, which means she’d be among the first to go if the district was forced to cut teacher positions.

“I just wanted you to know what a face of somebody you’ll lose looks like,” Spencer said.

Saddler, too, said he empathizes with teachers. But with state oil revenues on the decline, legislators have to make difficult decisions on many fronts.

“I kinda wish I was a legislator 10 years ago when there was more money,” he quipped.

Senators Anna Fairclough and Fred Dyson were unable to attend the meeting because they stayed in Juneau to work on the budget, Saddler said. Rep. Bill Stoltze was on legislative business in Fairbanks.

Not all discussion during the meeting was about education funding. Another topic that came up was energy, and specifically what legislators are doing to prevent the state from being forced to import natural gas or other fuel from Outside.

“We could be in serious trouble,” said Lynn Willis, who brought up the issue.

Saddler said the Legislature has offered incentives to Cook Inlet gas producers, but that the state can only do so much to make companies drill.

“We hope the more they drill the more they’ll find,” he said.

Reinbold said the state has worked to spur development by increasing the number of lease sales and offering tax credits to producers. And she said she also supports a “bullet line” from the North Slope. But neither seemed to think a short-term energy shortage appears avoidable.

“I won’t say it’s dire yet, but it is serious,” Saddler said.

 

Contact Matt Tunseth at 694-2727 or matt.tunseth@alaskastar.com.

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