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Bill to cut funding to small schools finds little support among Alaska lawmakers

Skip Gray/360 North

An early tally suggests that a proposal to raise the minimum school enrollment to 20 may be a non-starter, says Shana Crondahl of the Alaska Education Update. 

Last week, four Western Alaska lawmakers published a commentary in the Alaska Dispatch News, opposing a bill that would raise the threshold number of students schools need to get state funding. Representatives Bryce Edgmon, D-Dillingham, and Bob Herron, D-Bethel, and Senators Lyman Hoffman, D-Bethel, and Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, said such a measure would devastate rural communities, and that they would fight it “tooth and nail.”

Their piece was written partly in response to their colleague Rep. Lynn Gattis, R-Wasilla, who said she intends to sponsor legislation to raise minimum enrollment to 20 or 25 students. That’s a measure Gattis says would save the state $7 million dollars.

Juneau-based Shana Crondahl covers education issues in the legislature for the newsletter Alaska Education Update. She spoke with lawmakers gathered for this fall’s special session to get a sense for how much support Rep. Gattis’ bill might have.

"From the majority members I talked to, both Sen. Bert Stedman (R-Sitka) and Rep. Benjamin Nageak (D-Barrow) said they were not supportive of closing schools with fewer than 25 students," says Crondahl. "And Sen. Stedman said it’s not gonna pass. His words were, 'It ain’t gonna happen.'"

Credit Skip Gray/360 North
Sen. Bert Stedman (R-Sitka) during session in March 2015.

Crondahl also looked at where the small schools are in the state, and compiled a list of lawmakers that have small schools in their districts.

“There are eight out of 20 senators with schools with fewer than 25 students. Six of those are are majority members," said Crondahl. "In the house, 12 representatives have schools with fewer than 25 students, and ten are majority members.”

With so many Majority lawmakers representing districts with small schools, Crondahl suspects the proposal won’t have much support there.

On the other side of the aisle, Crondahl spoke with Senate Minority leader Berta Gardner, D-Anchorage, who said cutting funding to small schools would be the last thing she would consider as a cost-saving measure.

Given that, Crondahl says the proposal to raise minimum enrollment seems like a non-starter.

"Although I wouldn’t make any firm predictions, I would say it’s unlikely that closing schools with fewer than 25 would happen," said Crondahl. 

Crondahl says an alternative that more lawmakers seem open to would be consolidating small school districts, though it’s unclear how much money a measure like that would save. 

See Crondahl's original article here