Legislators Seek Faster School Internet Access

By CLAIRE STREMPLE
AND JAMES BROOKS
    Dozens of rural Alaska schools are at risk of not gaining access to faster internet access because of legislative deadlock over a wide-ranging education bill. While legislators say they’re optimistic about the progress of the bill, known as Senate Bill 140, their actions indicate something else.
    On Thursday, the House Finance Committee heard a standalone bill to raise the ceiling on internet speeds in Alaska’s schools, an attempt to make statutory change before it is too late for schools to get grants to pay for it.
    The move is a sign that lawmakers do not have confidence in the swift passage of SB 140, which was originally drafted to increase internet speeds but was amended by House majority-caucus leaders to include other education requests, including a boost to the base student allocation, a key component of the state’s per-student funding formula for public schools.
    The bill discussed Thursday, House Bill 193, would use state money and a federal match to increase the minimum internet speed in state schools from 25 to 100 megabits per second. Education advocates say the bill is about education equity in rural Alaska, where the internet is expensive and can be slow.
    The finance committee heard testimony on Thursday from remote districts that say they need their internet speeds boosted from the current minimum.
    Madeline Aguillard, superintendent of Kuspuk School District, said her district’s schools must stagger online standardized tests because the internet connection is so slow. “We have to build in extra schedules and monitor when they’re signing into devices,” she said. “We have remote tech directors that monitor our bandwidth usage and we max out every site every day.”
    In one of her district’s schools, all courses are taught online and increased speeds are crucial, she said.
    Jennifer Eller, director of educational technology in the Bering Strait School District, said their schools can only afford the internet with the help of grants.
    The cost of Internet access is not always adequately accounted for in the base student allocation funding,” she said. “Internet access for schools in rural Alaska can no longer be looked at as an accessory to learning. It is a necessity and imperative to provide an equitable 21st century educational experience.”
    For an increase to internet speeds to take effect in the next school year, lawmakers must move quickly. Schools must file forms for national grant funding by the end of February to meet the ultimate deadline at the end of March.
    Meanwhile, delegations from the House majority and Senate majority caucuses have been conducting closed-door negotiations in an attempt to break the impasse on SB 140, which also contains an internet speed increase.
    Participants described a six-member group including Sens. Lyman Hoffman, D-Bethel; Loki Tobin, D-Anchorage; and Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage, and Reps. Jamie Allard, R-Eagle River; Craig Johnson, R-Anchorage; and Jesse Sumner, R-Wasilla.
    Wielechowski said the most contentious items remain the amount of the base student allocation, funding for correspondence schools, and charter schools.
    Members of the predominantly Republican House majority have favored a smaller BSA increase, something Gov. Mike Dunleavy has supported, but senators prefer a larger figure.
    The problem, Wielechowski said, is that if the BSA rises to meet senators’ request, it could cause members of the House majority to abandon their support.
    Votes from the predominantly Democratic House minority might make up the difference in the House, but the minority hasn’t been included in negotiations.
    A larger BSA increase could also shake Dunleavy’s support, Johnson said.
    Even if the governor doesn’t veto a Legislature-approved version of HB 140, he could use his line-item budget veto powers to reduce the amount of public school funding in the annual budget, effectively resulting in a smaller BSA increase. That makes the governor’s support critical to any plan.
    The bill focused only on internet speeds, HB 193, could pass in time for educators to meet their deadline, but timing is tight. Rep. Dan Ortiz, I-Ketchikan, was interested in moving the bill out of committee on Thursday, but Rep. Julie Coloumbe, R-Anchorage, told the committee she wants to make an amendment, an act that will delay its advancement by several days.
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AK COVID-19

At a Glance

(updated 9-12-2023)

By Sentinel Staff

The state Department of Health and Social Services has posted the following update on the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Alaska as of 8:57 a.m. Tuesday, September 12.

New cases as of Tuesday: 278

Total cases (cumulative) statewide – 301,513

Total (cumulative) deaths – 1,485

Case Rate per 100,000 – 38.14

To visit the Alaska DHSS Corona Response dashboard website click here.

COVID in Sitka

The Sitka community level is now "Low.'' Case statistics are as of Tuesday.

Case Rate/100,000 – 152.50

Cases in last 7 days – 13

Cumulative Sitka cases – 3,575

Deceased (cumulative) – 10

The local case data are from Alaska DHSS.

 

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20 YEARS AGO

March 2004

Photo caption: Fire engines and ambulances shine in the sun outside the new fire hall Saturday during an open house. Hundreds turned out to look over the $4 million facility, which is twice the size of the building it replaced. It features a state-of-the-art exhaust system and much larger offices and a large training room.


50 YEARS AGO

March 1974

The Sheldon Jackson Museum will have a special showing of replicas of ancient Tlingit hunting weapons. The replicas were made by A. P. Johnson, a Tlingit  culture instructor and metal arts teacher at SJC.

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