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Alaska editorials – McClatchy Washington Bureau

Here is a sampling of editorial opinions from Alaska newspapers:

April 14, 2017

Ketchikan Daily News: A fine ship

Congratulations to the U.S. Coast Guard on the commissioning of its new fast response cutter, the John McCormick, on a beautiful Wednesday morning at Coast Guard Base Ketchikan. We’re pleased the Coast Guard is able to upgrade its equipment and deploy fresh designs such as these Sentinel-class cutters that can meet the demands of the Coast Guard’s modern-day mission. As former host to the cutter Acushnet which had the Coast Guard’s “Queen of the Fleet” designation as the agency’s oldest cutter before being decommissioned in 2011 and the buoy tender Planetree, Ketchikan knows the Coast Guard works hard to maximize the lifespan of its vessels. The Island-class, 110-foot patrol boats such as the Ketchikan-based Naushon are another example of the Coast Guard’s skill at extending vessel service life. As a maritime community, we also understand that technology advances. A new vessel with up-to-date design and running gear can bring huge benefits in capability and efficiency. The Coast Guard and the communities it serves stand to benefit from these new cutters.

We’re also pleased to see the John McCormick based here in Ketchikan, and we’re equally excited that it soon will be joined here by another fast response cutter, the Bailey Barco. Ketchikan is proud to be formally recognized as a Coast Guard City, a designation received in 2016 that recognized the longstanding positive relationship between the Coast Guard and the community. In addition to the service provided by the Coast Guard, Coast Guard personnel have long been an integral part of the community itself. We look forward to having the John McCormick and Bailey Barco crew members and families as part of our town. Wednesday’s commissioning of the John McCormick occurred in especially fine weather, with blue skies and temperatures reaching into the low 60s. We’ll take that as a good sign for the John McCormick’s presence and future here in Ketchikan.

Congratulations again to the Coast Guard.

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April 13, 2017

Peninsula Clarion: School funding deserves more comprehensive approach

The Alaska Senate Finance Committee this week put forward a trio of bills aimed at improving education in Alaska, from kindergarten through high school. To be sure, there are some good ideas contained in Senate Bills 102, 103, and 104, such as improved broadband access in schools, the ability for districts to share effective curriculums, and a directive for the Department of Education and Early Development to review other regions and adopt best practices. But there’s a troubling part of the legislation in SB 103, which would phase out the Alaska Performance Scholarship and the Alaska Education Grant. Funding would be redirected to the Alaska Innovation Education Grant Fund, which would provide grants to districts that work with the Department of Education to, according to a staffer for Sen. Anna McKinnon, “transform how they deliver education to their students.”

Our concern isn’t so much that the Legislature would school districts to be innovative in how they deliver education; we’re more worried that lawmakers seem to be yet again moving on to the next new thing without giving much consideration to whether the old thing was working.

Educating a student from kindergarten through 12th grade is a 13-year investment. What school districts need to be successful is consistent, stable, predictable funding. In Alaska, the bulk of that responsibility falls on the Legislature, but unfortunately, it would be hard for many lawmakers to argue that they’ve met that obligation in recent years. This session, in the face of a budget gap in the neighborhood of $3 billion, the Senate has proposed a 5 percent cut to the base student allocation. Redirecting funding from the Alaska Performance Scholarship and the Alaska Education Grant appears to be an effort to soften the blow, but all it does is force school districts to try to find new solutions to challenges they already were addressing before their budgets were slashed. And in the process, it pulls the rug out from under a large group of students with hopes of attending college or trade school in the coming years. Lawmakers need to do away with the perception that schools aren’t being innovative in the way they educate students. Educators have been developing ways to use technology to enhance educational opportunities since the first desktop computers started showing up in classrooms decades ago. As the technology has evolved, so have teaching methods.

Lawmakers need to stop trying to sell the cut as “a nickel on the dollar,” as if it won’t even be noticed. A five percent cut for a state where school district funding already is tight is a big deal. If we were talking about “a nickel on the dollar” tax increase, there would be outrage. We understand all too well the state’s fiscal situation, and education funding remains the largest portion of the state’s budget. But taking 5 percent out of the base student allocation will mean significant cuts to teaching and support staff at school districts across the state, and no amount of innovation will completely make up for it. Lawmakers need to stop pointing to high school graduation rates as the reason to fund or not to fund. During Monday’s hearing, Sen. McKinnon’s staffer commented that “student outcomes are not where we hoped they would be.” As we said, educating a student is a 13-year process. Imagine trying to put together a plan to do that, but each year, school districts are given different targets and different resources to meet those goals. What one Legislature may give, the next one may take away. Given the inconsistency of the Legislature’s education policy, is it any wonder that graduation rates might be inconsistent, too? The Alaska Performance Scholarship was never meant to be the silver bullet for Alaska’s education system; it was intended as a part of a comprehensive approach to improving student outcomes. The goal of the scholarship is to encourage students to take more rigorous courses during their high school careers; this year’s graduating class will be just the third to have completed four years of high school with the incentive in place. If lawmakers believe that the state truly can no longer afford the program, then make the hard decision and phase it out.

But a week at the end of the session hardly seems to be enough time to take up a comprehensive approach to delivering education in Alaska. In fact, it is part of the piecemeal approach that has yielded the results lawmakers are quick to criticize. We hope lawmakers take the time to dig deeper into the challenges of delivering education in Alaska before making decisions with such far-reaching consequences.

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April 14, 2017

Fairbanks Daily News-Miner: Haste in Juneau brought needless worry to residents in the state-run program

Residents of Alaska’s Pioneers’ Homes, and the family members of those residents, went through quite a bit of turmoil this month when news spread that the state Senate’s budget included a reduction that would have led to the closure of the homes in Palmer and Juneau on July 1. The Fairbanks home was to be spared in this budget action, but the decision by the state Senate almost certainly added some uncertainty to that home’s residents also. In the end, it turned out to be a sloppy and apparently unintentional action by the Senate that upset our senior Alaskans, people who don’t need to be exposed to such loose behavior by our elected officials in Juneau.

The news of the Senate’s proposed cut of $6.5 million to the Department of Health and Social Services spread rapidly. It amounted to about 10 percent of the Pioneers’ Homes total budget, enough to cause the closure of the two homes, Health and Social Services Commissioner Valerie Davidson said. The department began notifying residents of the potential closures and soon began receiving many phone calls of concern. Sen. Peter Micciche, the Senate majority leader, said the reduction was intended to be unallocated reduction to the Department of Health and Social Services as a whole even though it was somehow a part of the Pioneers’ Home budget. He noted the department could have moved money around to keep the homes operating and complained that the ruckus was a political move by opponents of the Senate budget in the House and in the administration of Gov. Bill Walker. It didn’t take long for the situation to turn around completely.

Gov. Walker on Wednesday sent a letter to staff and residents of the Pioneers’ Homes, saying he will do “everything within my power to assure that no Pioneer Home will be closed while I am governor.” He noted his own connection to the homes in that his father “a World War II veteran who fought the war on Alaskan soil as a member of the Alaska Scouts” lived the last six years of his life at the Pioneers’ Home in Palmer. The governor’s letter came on the day the state Senate approved a “Sense of the Senate,” a little-used procedure, to express full support for the Pioneers’ Homes. The brief statement began, “It is the sense of the Senate that our cherished seniors and honorable veterans be rest assured that all Pioneers’ Homes will remain open and fully operational after final action in the FY18 budget. The Senate feels that Pioneers’ Home residents have earned secure, quality housing and deserve to have the respect and deference of the Senate clearly communicated.”

The statement went on to specify the original intent of the budget language was for the financial reduction to be spread “throughout all other areas” of the Department of Health and Social Services. The department operates Pioneers’ Homes in Fairbanks, Anchorage, Juneau, Palmer, Sitka and Ketchikan. The Fairbanks home was the first to open (1967). The Palmer home is also a federally certified veterans home. Together, the facilities are home to more than 450 residents, whose average age in 2014 was 86.5. The homes offer levels of care, including for Alzheimer’s disease.

These homes serve a vital function, one becoming increasingly in demand as the number of older Alaskans steadily rises. The state is at or near the top of the list among the states in the number of older residents as a percentage of the total population. The percentage keeps rising. This entire episode was unfortunate. The positive is residents of the Pioneers’ Homes now have a written commitment from the governor and the Senate that the homes will remain open even as the state looks for ways to dig out from the budget crisis. The safety and security of the Pioneers’ Homes residents is something that all should be able to agree on.

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