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I hope everyone is doing well and staying safe as we all work together to reduce the rates of coronavirus transmission and keep our health network from being overwhelmed. As I write, the legislature has passed emergency coronavirus legislation and funding, as well as passing the operating budget in record time, and is in a procedural recess while members quarantine and take care of business at home.
As I am sure you’ve heard, the federal government is sending to Alaska more than a billion dollars to deal with the impact of the coronavirus. The money is going to programs that already have some federal funding, such as education, and can move fast because the Legislative Budget & Audit Committee can approve the extra non-state dollars. The rest of the money needs to be appropriated by the Legislature, because Alaska’s constitution says so. Discussions continue on when and how that will happen.
Above: the House Education Committee practices social distancing in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic.
Recently the House Education Committee met jointly with the Senate Education Committee to hear from the Department of Education and Early Development and from the University of Alaska. Additionally, we wanted to provide an opportunity for school officials around the state to share their efforts to keep kids safe, healthy, and learning, and to let it be known the areas where they need help.
Of particular concern was the Department’s recent unexpected issuance of a $540,000 contract to Florida Virtual Schools for distance learning classes. My assessment is that the decision was made hastily and without transparency, and I would have preferred that there be consideration given to using one or more of the many local school district distance learning programs developed in Alaska, rather than sending money and jobs to Florida.
I also want to make sure we help kids who are in danger of falling through the cracks such as those who do not have internet at home, or good bandwidth at school.
The meeting continued with us looking into the distribution of federal CARES Act education funds. Alaska received $38.3 million total for school districts to respond to the coronavirus pandemic.
As he said he would, the Governor is essentially using the emergency money to replace $30 million in outside-the-formula funding he vetoed from the education budget earlier this year. This leaves $8.3 million total remaining for 53 school districts who are spread across Alaska to find a way to keep their schools going.
These concerns were echoed by representatives of school districts around the state. We learned that they face frightening uncertainty in the times ahead. I will share with you something we heard from Norm Wooten, the Executive Director of the Alaska Association of School Boards. It is a list of what keeps school board members up at night:
The monumental task ahead faced by school districts, families, and students to respond to an uncertain and changing situation will require our full attention and additional resources in the days ahead.
On May 2, in a meeting of the Legislative Budget and Audit Committee, the above-mentioned CARES Act funding for education totaling $44.9 million was approved for appropriation and distribution to school districts and the University of Alaska. The remaining $2.9 million will be allocated by the Governor either to K-12 or higher education institutions.
On Wednesday I chaired a meeting of the House Community & Regional Affairs Committee to hear a presentation by Nils Andreassen, Executive Director of the Alaska Municipal League (AML), about the local government impacts of COVID-19. We also heard from five city mayors and managers from around the state on how the coronavirus has affected their communities. A lot of useful information was shared, and it was a very beneficial meeting. We received a comprehensive list COVID-19 FAQ’s document from AML that I’d like to share with you. Click here to view it.
I am doing a LOT of meetings via Zoom, including my first community council meeting on Wednesday night. Thanks to Spenard Community Council chair Lindsey Hajduk and past co-chair Jay Stange for making it easy, fun and informative! Keep up with what your neighbors are concerned about here at the Community Councils website. Capital Improvement Project surveys for the 2021 season need to be submitted by May 15, so please weigh in on what’s important to YOU.
Thank you to everyone for following the Health Mandates. They aren’t always easy to observe or even understand, but we’re all in this together.
As always, please do not hesitate to contact my office with any questions or concerns.