Federal education officials say Alaska owes millions to Juneau, Kenai and North Slope school districts

Federal education officials say Alaska owes millions to Juneau, Kenai and North Slope school districts

The Juneau School District office on Tuesday, Dec. 16, 2024. (Clarise Larson/KTOO)

The U.S. Department of Education says Alaska underfunded three school districts when they distributed COVID relief funds in the 2021-2022 school year.

The American Rescue Plan Act gave billions of dollars in emergency assistance to schools during the pandemic. But in order to receive those funds, states had to ensure the money would support communities that needed it most. Rules attached to the funding prevented states from disproportionately reducing their own funding to high-need districts.

Yet in a December letter to Alaska Department of Education and Early Development Commissioner Deena Bishop, federal education officials said state funding fell short by more than $5 million for the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District, $2.5 million for the Juneau School District and $190,000 for the North Slope School District in the 2021-2022 school year.

“One way that Alaska may resolve the identified compliance issues for FY 2022 is by making supplemental payments,” Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy and Programs Adam Schott wrote in the letter.

Schott wrote that DEED had 30 days to submit a plan describing whether, when and how they would make supplemental payments to the districts. In an October letter to Bishop, U.S. Office of State and Grantee Relations Director Laura Jimenez wrote that supplemental payments would be excluded from the disparity test, which allows Alaska to count some federal aid as state funding

“If DEED does not provide a timely response, the Department may take appropriate enforcement actions,” Schott wrote.

A U.S. Department of Education spokesperson said Thursday that they have not received a formal response from DEED. 

Kenai Peninsula Borough School District Superintendent Clayton Holland hasn’t heard anything from DEED about the letter. He said $5 million in additional funding would make a big difference for his district, which is facing a $13 million deficit for the next fiscal year.

“That would be a huge thing for our district to receive as we’re in these challenging financial times,” he said.

Juneau School District Superintendent Frank Hauser, whose district is facing a $9.7 million deficit for next year, said he hasn’t heard anything from DEED either. He said district leaders shouldn’t bet on getting that money back anytime soon.

“I really would urge extreme caution at this early date about adding this amount to the revenue columns for the districts mentioned in here, because we just need to hear from the state first and see the response to the U.S. Department of Education,” he said. “My sense is that the state will probably contest this, but we’re just going to have to wait and see.”

Education commissioner Bishop did not respond to an interview request.

KDLL’s Riley Board contributed reporting.

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