SESSION SUMMARY: Virtual Meetings with Legislators

Facilitated by Norm Wooten, AASB Advocacy Director

Due to the pandemic, in-person appointments with legislators have not been possible this session. In response, AASB scheduled one-hour Zoom meetings during the week of March 22-25 to provide school boards with time to connect with their legislators to advocate for education priorities. All board members were invited to attend the legislative meetings, not just those who participated in the Legislative Academy. A total of 43 school districts participated in this series of legislative meetings.

Scheduling meeting times that worked for legislators during the peak of session activity was a challenge. Senate and House floor sessions, hearing schedules for 63 committees, and the personal schedules of 60 legislators were taken into account. Lawmakers who were unable to attend their scheduled meetings with school board constituents were asked to have a member of their staff attend, which some did. 

The legislative Zoom meetings were facilitated by AASB Advocacy Director Norm Wooten. In order to allow every district in attendance an opportunity to participate, each board was given 3-5 minutes to present their specific priorities. Legislators were given time to respond to board members’ questions and provide updates on specific issues, legislation, and overall session progress.

The meeting format worked well for both legislators and school board members. Consolidating all of the school districts each legislator represents into a single meeting made the best use of the limited time they have available.
In addition to time efficiency, the virtual meetings provided a relaxed, less formal setting for all participants to talk, which often resulted in spontaneous and productive conversations that may not have occurred otherwise. The virtual format also provided some board members who may not be used to participating in legislative advocacy, a convenient opportunity to do so. 

Having multiple districts in the same meeting articulating closely aligned priorities clearly illustrated that despite a district’s size or region, all have similar challenges and needs. Legislators experienced Alaska school boards “speaking with one voice” to advocate not only for their own districts, but for all Alaska students.

Some of the issues addressed by board members during the meetings included:  

  • Predictable, stable forward funding so districts can plan and budget
  • Alaska needs new revenue sources
  • Fully fund bond debt reimbursement – impacts local contributions
  • No cost shifting to municipalities for transportation, bond debt, maintenance, PERS/TRS, etc.
  • No cuts to Power Cost Equalization – our elders are concerned.
  • No unfunded mandates, like middle college bill
  • Prevention of state mandated school consolidation.
  • Fully fund the BSA and keep it in line with inflation. Adjusting for inflation, the BSA is at a 2011 level.
  • Teacher and administrator recruitment and retention is more difficult now than ever before.
  • The effects of the pandemic have increased the need for additional support for student and staff wellness and learning loss, such as SEL issues and  crisis counseling, as in-person instruction is phased back in.
  • Increased access to broadband connectivity to address academic equity and education opportunities for students.
  • Support for the Alaska Marine Highway System – district cost factors are based on ferries. The price of freight has skyrocketed with reduced ferry sailings. 
  • districts are trying to offer as many education options as possible within funding parameters to serve the increased needs of families.
  • The uncertain effects of decreased student enrollment this year, and if the migration to e-learning, home school, correspondence schools, private schools, or moving out of state will be temporary or permanent for future enrollment. Districts are in the process of collecting and analyzing this data to help predict the Fall student count.
  • Pivoting how relief monies are used for future planning, continually adjusting funding levels to address pandemic phases and delivering remote instruction as community case levels rise and fall. Critical needs of PPE, devices, connectivity, staffing duties/levels, meal delivery, etc. will continue to be adjusted as needs change and students return to in-person instruction.
  • Concern about what happens to state funding when CARES money is gone.
  • Board members supported and or questions about these bills: 
    • HB 111 – Need to understand its differences and similarities to SB 8 and SB 42
    • SB 20 – TEACHER RECIPROCITY – good candidates coming form outside the state that need Alaska certification.
    • SB 58/HB 78 FUNDING FOR CORRESPONDENCE PROGRAMS – Past funding levels were sufficient when program was only serving home school, but need to redefine funding levels by what’s currently happening as a result of the pandemic.
    • SB 18 CLASS SIZE REDUCTION GRANT PROGRAM – will help close learning gaps
    • SB 37 – TEACHERS & PUB EMPLOYEE RETIREMENT PLANS – defined benefit or defined contribution for teachers

Some of the issues legislators addressed included:

  • Legislators are currently working to gain an in-depth understanding of the latest round of federal COVID funding and what it means for Alaska. Senator Bishop: “We’re drinking from a firehose” trying to unpack the latest round of COVID-19 funding.
  • School districts’ need for long range planning going forward. 
  • The need for early childhood education funding (versus corrections funding)
  • quantifying the results of education funding
  • SB 8 – PRE-K/ELEM ED PROGRAMS/FUNDING; READING  – An approved Head Start program could qualify as early education. School districts should have latitude. Won’t interfere with Head Start program. 
  • SB 15 – OPEN MEETINGS ACT; PENALTY – The idea of a personal penalty would likely result in a drop in citizens running for boards. The Alaska legislature would be exempt.
  • SB 58 – FUNDING FOR CORRESPONDENCE PROGRAMS – recognize its importance, but not in place of regular funding.
  • Interest in the specifics and challenges districts face in reopening schools for in-person instruction.
  • Virtual learning in some form will be integral to education for the foreseeable future
  • Looking for perspectives on the effect distance learning, correspondence school, and  home schooling will have on brick and mortar school enrollment. 
  • Teacher vaccination levels – are all who want it able to be vaccinated?
  • CTE, apprenticeship programs
  • Improving student performance relative to cost benefit productivity.
  • There seem to be hidden costs in middle college bill. 
  • Gov’s GO bonds bill has lost momentum (school major maintenance)
  • Don’t have an alternate funding source, not dead yet but having trouble
  • The rise in oil prices has created a budget surplus. A smaller dividend can help adequately fund schools and keep class sizes low.

The advocacy skills and professionalism displayed by board members in their interactions with legislators was impressive. Your collective voices will make a difference in the outcome of this legislative session. For some districts, these virtual meetings may have been the only chance to connect with their Senators and Representatives this session, and AASB is pleased to have been able to facilitate that opportunity. 

We’d like to express our gratitude for the increased member response to AASB’s advocacy outreach efforts this session. Following the Legislative Academy, readership of The Session newsletter increased by 10% and engagement with Testify By Text alerts and Call To Action emails has surged.

We appreciate your interest and support, and will continue working hard to keep our members up to date on the latest session developments by providing you with relevant and timely legislative information to support your district’s advocacy efforts. 

Our sincere thanks to everyone who attended AASB’s Legislative Academy and virtual meetings with lawmakers. Your participation demonstrated the importance of supporting public education for the future leaders of Alaska to our legislature. 


AASB 2021 Legislative Talking Points

AASB 2021 Legislative Priorities List