OPINION: Alaska can’t afford to close schools. It’s time for an endowment to fund pre-K through UA.

By Bill Walker

Anchorage Daily News, November 1

The recent announcement of six recommended school closures in Anchorage to reduce the budget deficit the Anchorage School District faces was devastating but sadly not surprising. Closing schools is the inevitable result of Mike Dunleavy’s reckless and callous “financial plan,” where he has taken an axe to K-12 and university education and actively sought to make Alaska a less desirable place to live for families and workers. Let’s review the record.

Dunleavy frequently cites his bona fides as a public school administrator and his time in rural Alaska as evidence of his support for public education. Yet he shows no indication that he understands how education administration works. He came into office and cut school funding almost beyond recognition.

He vetoed bond debt reimbursement to school districts across the state, including in Anchorage. In his first three years in office, he failed to increase the base student allocation, the formula by which funding for school districts is determined. And this year he approved an increase of only 0.5%, while inflation is hovering around 8%. The result is a crippled education system in Alaska that has ripple effects on our economy and is driving families out of the state.

Enough is enough. With the latest round of school closure recommendations, compounded by insufficient transportation for children in the Anchorage School District, and a looming budget deficit of $68 million, parents are struggling to get their children to school, keep their jobs and feel confident that their students are receiving a quality education.

Closing schools destroys neighborhoods. It creates large, empty spaces and buildings that can attract negative behavior, and reduces the property values of homes in the surrounding areas. As schools close, families grow less invested in the community, and many eventually leave, driving down overall enrollment. The drop in enrollment results in additional school closures, and this vicious feedback loop continues until our communities are drained, blight takes over neighborhoods, and property taxes for those who remain will skyrocket to cover the continuing costs of operating schools and other essential functions. (Remember, Dunleavy’s veto of municipal school bond debt reimbursement already resulted in a 10% increase in property taxes for Anchorage property owners. But he’s more than happy to pass the buck on to you so he can buy votes in an election year.)

Just can look to communities like Detroit to see what happens when this loss of economic opportunity ripples through entire cities. But this is what Mike Dunleavy wants. In 2018, he openly campaigned on the idea that he was “going to take Alaska back to the ‘60s, (when) we were a state of 250,000 or maybe 300,000 people.” The outmigration of families pulling up stakes when they don’t see a future for their children is part of Mike Dunleavy’s vision to reverse 60 years of progress. If he feels differently in 2022, he certainly hasn’t said so, and his actions over the past four years speak to what his priorities really are.

I’m a product of Alaska’s public schools. So is Heidi Drygas, my running mate. We’re both currently the parents and grandparents of Alaska public school students, and we are personally invested in solving the school crisis and reversing the trend of families leaving to find better opportunities in the Lower 48.

Our plancreates the Alaska Education Endowment which will fund pre-K through university education for Alaska’s students using a percentage of resource development revenues.

To help our children have the best possible start in life and to support working families, our administration will establish a Childcare Trust to help fund systematic approaches to increase access and affordability of child care and improve wages for child care workers.

We are acutely aware that flat-funding K-12 education year after year amounts to a budget cut in the face of inflation. We will ensure that education funding is sustainable, predictable, and reliable; none of which is true under the current administration.

Dunleavy signed one of the largest operating budgets in state history this year. While he happily paid out oversized no-bid contracts to political supporters and tried to buy Alaskans’ votes with one-time dividends, our population is dwindling, schools are closing, kids have to travel farther to get an education, and we have unmitigated bus driver and teacher shortages. This is an utter failure of leadership.

There are many reasons to be proud of Alaska, and our schools must be one of them. We have a plan to get back on track; not just for the next four years, but for decades to come. Every poll shows we are the only ticket that can unseat the incumbent. Help save our schools and rebuild Alaska by ranking Walker Drygas No. 1 by Nov. 8.

Bill Walker was Alaska’s 11th governor and current candidate for governor. He received his public education in Delta Junction and Valdez. All four Walker children are West High graduates and Walker grandchildren attend Anchorage public schools. His running mate, Heidi Drygas, is a product of public schools in Fairbanks and a graduate of UAF.