Between 2014-2018 the budget at UAS Sitka Campus was cut by 29-percent, according to director Leslie Gordon. And it was cut another 9-percent this year. Gov. Dunleavy has now proposed a 40-percent cut to Alaska’s university system statewide — and Gordon considers this an existential threat to her campus and its 44 employees. “We can’t let this happen,” she said. (KCAW file photo)

The governor’s determination to cut state funding by $1.6 billion dollars next year — and still pay each resident a full dividend check — will have sweeping implications for almost all state services: From schools and universities, to the ferry system, the Pioneer Homes, and beyond.

So far, most media attention locally has been focused on the potentially devastating cuts to schools, but many other services would be affected by the governor’s proposed budget.

Last week (4-11-19), the University of Alaska Southeast invited agencies and organizations from the community to its Sitka campus for an evening discussion.  Panelists from three economic sectors took turns describing the impact of a significant loss of state funding: Education, Health, and the Arts & Nonprofits.

In part 1 of a three-part series revisiting that conversation, KCAW’s Robert Woolsey reports on the Education panel.

Note: In Part 2 of this series, KCAW’s Enrique Pérez de la Rosa recaps the Arts & Nonprofits panel, from last week’s University of Alaska forum on proposed state budget cuts.

Meeting facilitator Doug Osborne — “Leslie can have three minutes, but everyone else gets two.” (Audience laughter).

For educators, especially, there is some gallows humor around the governor’s budget plans. Still, the stakes are huge.

UAS Sitka’s Leslie Gordon kicked off the panel.

“Leslie Gordon, campus director here at the Sitka campus (of UAS). The Sitka campus serves about 900 students per semester, with 70-80 percent taking online or distance courses.”

The Sitka campus is well known for its use of portable lab equipment, so students can train for careers in health care while holding down jobs in their home communities. It’s also offers a full suite of other career training, from fisheries technology to welding.   

And funding next year is a total question mark.

“We do not currently know how the budget will affect the Sitka campus,” she went on. “We have 44 employees and an operating budget of $5.35 million, with $2.6 million coming from the state appropriation…”

So about half of the UAS Sitka budget is funded by the state. The rest is covered by tuition and fees. Gov. Mike Dunleavy in February proposed cutting over $131 million from Alaska’s university system — 40 percent of the budget.

But Alaska didn’t wake up in February with a budget crisis. The state’s been adjusting ever since oil prices crashed in 2014. Between that year and 2018, the Sitka campus cut its budget 29 percent, and then another 9 percent this year.

The governor isn’t exactly slashing a bloated system, according to Gordon. Whatever happens next is going to hurt.

“The next cuts will be more staff and faculty, the closure of programs, and/or the entire campus,” she warned, adding: We can’t let this happen.”

That’s pretty much where Gordon and the other six education panelists land on education cuts: The cure proposed by the governor is more harmful than the disease. And many Alaskans seem to think so, too. In the latest poll conducted by Ivan Moore’s Alaska Survey Research, 50-percent of residents surveyed believe that the governor’s budget, if enacted, will weaken the state’s economy. 58-percent of Alaskans think it will cost the state jobs.

In Sitka, that would certainly be the case. The Sitka School District is the community’s second-largest employer, and if the governor gets his way, could be forced to cut 46 positions. Even under a more optimistic compromise scenario, the district has proposed cutting 15 positions.

Mt. Edgecumbe High School is comparably staffed, with between 125 and 150 employees in any given year. It’s 430 students travel from all over the state to attend, and although they don’t pay tuition at the state-run boarding school, they do pay Sitka.

Academic principal Bernie Gurule told the audience about an ATM machine the school provides in the student lounge.

“We have to fill that ATM machine with $15,000, and we have to refill it every two weeks,” said Gurule. “That’s just the cash that’s going across the bridge. That’s not counting the card transactions that are taking place in Sitka as well.”

Mt. Edgecumbe is funded through the Department of Education, much like any other school district — but with needs unique to a boarding school. Gurule said the school has 63 contracts for a variety of services, at least half of them with Sitka businesses.

Lisa Busch, with the Sitka Sound Science Center, and Rachel Henderson, with the Sitka Tribe of Alaska, don’t receive direct state funding, but they talked about the indirect harms their organizations would suffer if the school district, the university, and Mt. Edgecumbe were severely compromised. Many of the collaborations that supported numerous programs and jobs in Sitka would collapse.

Kari Sagel, who lost her job last year as Blatchley Middle School’s full-time librarian due to a funding cut, was reassigned to a grant-funded position supporting family engagement, especially surrounding Head Start and the
Wooch.ein Yei Preschool for 3-5 year-olds — a collaboration between the Sitka School District and the Tribe.

She brought a holistic objection to the governor’s proposed funding plan.

“We must insist the legislature pass its own budget,” said Sagel. “One that cherishes the children of Wooch.ein and by extension values the world we create for them: One with preschools, public schools, universities, ferries, affordable Pioneer Homes, and health care for those who need it.”

Head Start is 80-percent funded by the federal government to support the most vulnerable pre-school age children, providing not just education, but also medical and dental screenings, and one hot meal each day.

In the past, Alaska has picked up three-quarters of the remaining tab — but that could end. Sagel told the audience, “Gov. Dunleavy’s budget offers them nothing.”