The cuts Governor Mike Dunleavy proposed to education funding Wednesday are deep. His proposed budget does away with about 25 percent of K-12 funding and cuts the University of Alaska system’s funding by 41 percent. Those numbers have caused education leaders in Sitka to worry.
The cuts to education funding are especially worrisome for the University of Alaska system. If the governor’s proposed budget is enacted, it could mean the shutdown of expensive programs and staff layoffs. At a press conference on Wednesday, university president Jim Johnsen said the cuts could lead to closure of campuses across Alaska.
“This is devastating news for the University of Alaska,” Sitka Campus Director Leslie Gordon said. “Everyone is rightfully very nervous about what’s going to happen over the next few months.”
But it’s too early to tell if the Sitka campus will close, Gordon said, not until legislators in Juneau pass the final budget and the governor signs it. At any rate, she can’t help but worry. With such a big cut being proposed, she says UAS is being forced to evaluate which programs and courses to prioritize.
“We need to be looking at data to programs that have low enrollment,” Gordon said. “Most of our courses here in Sitka are pretty full and our faculty are self supporting in most areas so it’s hard to say. We don’t have low enrollment programs on the Sitka campus.”
The rest of UAS staff are worried too, Gordon said. The Sitka campus employs 44 full time employees and 3 people who work part-time. That’s why Gordon thinks closure of the campus would have a profound impact to the local economy and the community.
“The community in Sitka is on edge over this,” Gordon said. “The campus is on edge. I have been trying to let people know don’t panic at this point. We don’t know if this is going to affect us. We may not know until April or May. We’ll keep going forward with plans to be open.”
The proposed cut to K-12 education was smaller, percentage wise, but the Sitka School District is no less worried. Superintendent Mary Wegner called the Governor’s proposed cuts to public education “unconscionable.”
“If implemented, it will decimate public education in Alaska,” Wegner said. “Overall, this is a 25 percent cut for the Sitka School District.”
Governor Dunleavy’s proposed budget cuts to public education come weeks after he proposed cutting already-approved school funding by $20 million dollars. That cut has impacted funding to the Sitka School District by more than $187,000 dollars, according to the district.
In his press conference Wednesday, Governor Dunleavy said the cuts will “compel school districts to evaluate how they spend their money.” But that doesn’t justify the cuts, Wegner said.
“I would really like to know what data the governor had that shows that this level of cut to public education would still provide to educational adequacy,” she said. “Just saying we can make decisions on what’s priority to us is not reality.”
On top of that, the district is also suffering from budget constraints brought on by low enrollment projections.
Wegner is unsure about the dollar-for-dollar impact of the latest proposed cuts. It’s too early to tell. But like UAS Sitka, the district is reviewing every line of their budget. Wegner said everything the district spends money on is vulnerable to cuts. That includes cuts to personnel, which make up 84 percent of the district’s expenses.
“Everything is vulnerable,” she said. “Everything has to be up for consideration as we look at our priorities but it’s way too soon to tell what that would be or what would have the least impact. But you can’t just take a table with four legs and cut a leg off and think it’s going to be functional.”
The budget is far from being final. It will be reviewed by legislators and likely hotly contested over in the next few months, as the legislative session continues. In the meantime, education leaders across Alaska will have to wait and determine their spending priorities.