Sen. Stevens talks education, PFD at Anchor Point town hall

Concerned parents, educators and community members flocked to Chapman School last Friday to hear from Sen. Gary Stevens (R-Kodiak) in one of two town hall meetings he held that day.

After visiting in Homer earlier in the day, Stevens went to Anchor Point to give an update on the Legislature’s work on Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s proposed budget and take questions from residents. Two big topics of concern were funding for education, and how to balance the budget, taking into account how the Permanent Fund Dividend fits into that goal. Stevens sent a message that the proposed budget is just that, a proposal. The Legislature has the final say on the state’s budget.

“The governor’s budget is not cast in stone,” he said. “It’s just his idea. And the reason it’s as bad as it is on schools and the marine highway and everything else, is because of that $3,000 dividend.”

He implored local residents to tell him what they wanted, what they thought was reasonable.

Dunleavy’s budget proposes giving Alaskans a $3,000 PFD. Stevens has said it’s not likely that this will happen. He pointed out that, if the PFD was only $400 this next year, the state’s roughly $1.6 billion deficit would be completely eliminated.

Stevens also said he will not be proposing a $400 dividend. He said it’s likely Alaskans will see something in between those two extremes — something around a $1,500-$2,600 dividend combined with cuts to state services.

Some people at the Anchor Point town hall were in favor of a $3,000 PFD, and heavy cuts to government spending. John Cox, who previously ran for the Alaska House of Representatives District 31 seat that Rep. Sarah Vance now holds, told the crowd during his comments that the proposed $3,000 is theirs to begin with. Stevens countered that Cox’s statement represented a misunderstanding of the PFD.

Others asked why a reduced PFD or drastic cuts to state services seems to be the only options. One commenter referred to the situation as an ultimatum. A few said they want the legislature to explore an income tax to boost revenue.

“I think the state is being remiss in its opportunity and its responsibilities by not having an income tax,” one commenter said.

Stevens said working to pass an income tax this year is essentially a “waste of time.”

“Even if the Legislature were to pass an income tax, the governor has promised to veto it,” he said.

Stevens believes the state will be facing an income tax some time in the future, he said.

Stevens also told residents he supports a proposal to cut state spending over a number of years, rather than all at once. He did say, however, that it wouldn’t be a step down to the level of the governor’s proposed budget cuts.

“We would step down rationally and logically,” Stevens said.

Several people at the town hall urged Stevens and the Legislature to protect funding for education. Information released by the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District shows Chapman on a list of schools that would potentially be closed if Dunleavy’s budget went through unaltered.

Chapman serves a lot of Title I students from low income areas, according to Principal Conrad Woodhead. The school currently has 11 certified staff and seven classified staff members. Of these, six staff members are non-tenured. The school currently serves around 134 students.

One concerned community member implored Stevens to think about what would happen if Chapman closed and students had to be bused into Homer for school. Elementary school-aged children would have to be on a bus close to 6 o’clock in the morning, she said.

Anchor Point resident Casey Eberle, a parent of students at Chapman, said he understands there do have to be cuts, but said closing schools will not do anything to improve the education system in Alaska.

“When cuts have to be made, I feel like we have to look long term, and schools are long term,” Eberle said. “… Once a school closes, it will never come back. This town will go away.”

After the meeting, Woodhead spoke about proposed cuts to state education and how they could affect his school.

“What’s tough for me is that everything on that list are things that I went to school for,” he said. “So the activities and everything. That was what got me in the door and made me as good a student as I was.”

Woodhead said he’s been hearing in the community that numbers put out by the district and the school activities that would be cut under the Dunleavy budget are simply “scare tactics.”

“My message to folks is that, look, based on the information that we have now, the district has to come up with a comprehensive plan in order to meet those budget needs,” he said. “And so part of that plan has Chapman on a list, and that is more than just scary. That … makes it very real.”

Woodhead, a third-generation public education teacher, said he never wants to be in the position of pitting one school against another, and he thinks there needs to be advocation for small schools in general.

Especially where small schools in small communities are concerned, drastic cuts and potential school closures can have a ripple effect far beyond the school walls.

“You take a school out of a community of, say Anchor Point, that’s the hub of that community,” Woodhead said. “What I heard some folks say today is that, if consolidations were to happen, it might make sense to do those in the city area schools where they still have their basic services, they can still have a school culture … but not cut the heart out of the community.”

Chapman school has created multiple community partnerships over the years with organizations like SVT Health and Wellness, the Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies and Sprout Family Services.

“The list goes on and on and on,” Woodhead said. “So those are all entities that, in one way or another, we depend on them and they depend on us in order to be able to serve.”

Woodhead said that, regardless of what the Legislature comes up with in terms of balancing the budget, schools in the district are not going to be the same next year.

“I think it’s important for people to understand that even if Chapman is open and safe from the consolidation process, that every school in our district is going to look different,” Woodhead said.

He stressed that people should know how to advocate in the proper ways. It’s important to know what the body one is advocating to actually has the power to do, he said, whether it be the Legislature, the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly or the Board of Education.

“I’m excited because I think, if there’s any common ground to be had, it’s that we can decide that this building is important to our community and our ability to meet kids’ needs,” Woodhead said.

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