Preliminary Alaska school enrollment numbers show some districts face big funding challenges

COVID-19 is having a big impact across Alaska's schools.
COVID-19 is having a big impact across Alaska's schools.(KTUU)
Published: Nov. 18, 2020 at 7:54 PM AKST
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn

JUNEAU, Alaska (KTUU) - A joint legislative committee got a first look at how COVID-19 is impacting school enrollment and causing other challenges for teachers and students.

Over half of Alaska’s 54 school districts are currently projected to receive less state funding than was expected before the pandemic. The funding changes are not projected to be consistent across Alaska, and some districts are set to receive more state formula funds than last year.

The Alaska Department of Education and Early Development presented to a joint legislative education committee hearing on Wednesday.

The department’s presentation included a look at the preliminary count of Alaskan students done from late September through October. That count forms a major part of a formula the state uses to determine how a majority of funds are allocated to school districts.

The data shows that there are 13% fewer students enrolled at brick and mortar schools across the state compared to last year. There has been a 93% jump in Alaskan students taking classes by correspondence from 2019 numbers.

The enrollment numbers aren’t consistent across Alaska. Some districts have seen a 1300% increase in students learning via correspondence while other districts don’t have correspondence programs.

Some districts have seen a 10% rise in enrollment while others have seen a reduction in overall student numbers.

“There are some small districts that have seen unprecedented enrollment drops, up to 40%,” said Kerry Boyd, the superintendent of the Yukon-Koyukuk School District.

The Education Department says most of the enrollment numbers are expected to be temporary and would return to relative normal after the pandemic.

The department is also projecting a loss of 1,535 students across the state’s public school system compared to last year. Education officials are still analyzing where those students have gone.

Erin Hardin, a spokesperson for the Department of Education, emphasized that these enrollment numbers are preliminary and subject to change through further review.

“This review process includes clean-up of the enrollment data to correct for any duplicates and review of intensive students,” Hardin said by email. “This work is underway now and we anticipate having finalized FY2021 preliminary numbers available by early January at the latest.”

But the preliminary numbers paint a stark picture of how the pandemic has impacted enrollment in Alaska and how state school funding could be allocated when the Legislature convenes in January.

Heidi Teshner, the director of finance and support services, said by current estimates that there would be a $26.5 million formula funding increase across Alaska school districts compared to earlier projections.

That formula funding is not spread evenly across the state. Twenty-six districts are currently projected to see a $55 million funding increase while 28 school districts would see a $28.6 million decrease from earlier projections.

Unalaska School District is expected to see a 13% decrease in school formula funding compared to what was projected through the next fiscal year. Wrangell School District is projected to see a 14.5% decrease.

The foundation formula is only part of the story when it comes to school revenue.

On the Kenai Peninsula, the governor’s recent veto to one-time school funding, projected funding reductions for student transportation and a decrease in the borough’s contribution for schools would see the Kenai Peninsula School District with a $9 million deficit.

Dave Jones, the district’s assistant superintendent, said the school board is planning to use a fund set aside for “dire emergencies” to cover the shortfall. Jones said that “the bank will be empty” by the end of the next fiscal year under current projections.

There are other challenges for school administrators, too.

Boyd said there are concerns about teacher turnover and that some students could fall behind during the pandemic.

There is also concern about poor internet access in some parts of rural Alaska while schools operate remotely. Boyd explained that means some students can’t speak to their teachers and have to do school work on their own.

“Many school districts do not have that opportunity to have that ongoing meaningful contact with families and students,” Boyd said.

Jones also explained that parents have often promised to bring students back from homeschool programs when the pandemic eases. “The problem is that we’re going to have to provide the services to the students when they return, but we will not have received the funding for those students,” he said.

While many schools are looking at funding shortfalls, others are currently set to see a boost in state formula funding.

Yukon-Koyukuk School District has seen a 3% rise in enrollment in brick and mortar schools from last year and a 136% increase in students studying by correspondence. The result is that the district would see an almost 80% state formula funding rise compared to last year.

The Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District is also projected to see a formula funding increase of $3.19 million despite seeing a drop in the number of overall students.

For districts struggling financially, there could be help through Alaska law. State statute has a hold harmless provision that ensures funding levels are somewhat maintained if there is a 5% or greater drop in enrollment.

But, some education advocates aren’t convinced that will be enough. “This is a misnomer to put forth the position that the hold harmless provision will protect districts from that,” said Norm Wooten from the Alaska Association of School Boards.

Dr. Lisa Parady, the executive director of the Alaska School Administrators Association, said that law wasn’t written with a crisis like COVID-19 in mind.

On the Kenai, Jones found that intensive needs students aren’t factored into the hold harmless provision. That is expected to see the school district miss out on $1.5 million in state funds.

Funds typically allocated for student transportation aren’t factored into the hold harmless provision either, meaning Kenai schools will miss out on another $1.7 million as part of the district’s $9 million deficit.

Jillian Morrissey, a spokesperson for the Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District, said that would also be an issue for valley schools. Fewer students enrolled in brick and mortar schools means the district will miss out on $2.1 million, cutting into the district’s formula funding increase.

North Pole Republican Rep. Mike Prax asked Jones why districts would need revenue for transportation with more students learning remotely. Jones explained that contracts have been signed with transportation companies and need to be honored.

Parady described the pandemic as a “hurricane” hitting every community in Alaska. She cited a letter written by school superintendents in August to the Education Department, asking for 2019′s funding formulas to be used through the next year.

Teshner explained there would be a downside to that idea. Using last year’s formula would break the disparity test, which puts limits on how much funding the state’s highest funded school districts can receive from the state compared to its lowest funded districts.

Breaking that rule would mean Alaska could stand to lose $255 million in federal aid over the next several years.

“Alaska education funding statutes were clearly not designed to account for the drastic but temporary impacts of a pandemic,” said Rep. Harriet Drummond, D-Anchorage, through a prepared statement. “The Legislature will have to act swiftly in January to provide relief to school districts faced with difficult fiscal decisions while continuing to educate Alaska’s 127,000 K-12 students.”

Anchorage Democratic Sen. Tom Begich said the Legislature would need to focus on short and long-term fixes to the state’s school funding issues when it next convenes.

“This cannot be a political solution,” he said. “It has to be a solution that looks at what education will be like in three years and five years, and then plans toward that goal. Otherwise, we will be failing. We can’t just do a one-year budget solution here, it’s not going to work.”

Education Commissioner Michael Johnson told lawmakers that there could be a bright spot on the horizon. U.S. Congress is discussing another round of COVID-19 relief that could help bridge some of the state’s school funding fiscal gaps.

Despite the gloomy news for logistics and funding during the pandemic, he remained optimistic.

“We remain committed to an education system that works for kids,” Johnson said. “So that they will be able to be ready for any future pandemic that comes into their life. In other words, my confidence in the impact our students will have on the future gives me great optimism, even as we suffer through the consequences of this current pandemic.”

Copyright 2020 KTUU. All rights reserved.