Progress, Setbacks in State Health Report


Alaska Beacon

Alaskans have been pursuing healthier lifestyles by many measures, but disturbing trends of violence and suicide continue to plague the population, according to status reports released by the Alaska Department of Health.

The Healthy Alaskans 2020 final report and scorecard issued by the department earlier this week painted a mixed picture of progress over a decade. Among the 25 indicators measured were some targets accomplished but also some setbacks.

The program, a collaboration of the department and the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, has been producing health improvement plans since 1994, with objectives defined for 10-year periods and progress measured periodically.

Among the striking improvements shown in the 2020 results released this week was a reduction in the rate of cancer deaths in Alaska. While cancer remains the leading cause of death in the state, the rate fell significantly, decreasing by 15.5% from 2000 to 2019, the scorecard said.

More positive news was shown in declines of tobacco use and binge drinking. Additionally, there was increased access to medical care and support, with targets met for affordability of doctor visits and for the percentage of adolescents who said they had at least three trusted adults in their lives to provide help if needed.

Negative trends shown in the scorecard were statistics for the various traumatic harms that Alaskans continue to suffer.

Suicide rates increased by about 26% from 2010 to 2019, and rates of rape increased by about 20% from 2013 to 2019, according to the scorecard. Rates of domestic violence increased, though not as dramatically, according to the scorecard.

Alaska consistently has one of the nation’s highest rates of suicide. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Wyoming was the only U.S. state with a higher 2020 suicide rate than Alaska. Alaska has long had much higher rates of rape and domestic violence than the national average, with Alaska Native women at particularly high risk.

The Healthy Alaskans 2020 scorecard also said that rates of death from unintentional injuries rose by 7.6% over the period. For years, Alaska has had one of the nation’s highest rates of deaths from accidental injuries.

Another area where trends are going in the wrong direction, according to the report, is obesity. Rates for both children and adults rose between 2010 and 2019, the report said, though a smaller percentage of adults were classified as “overweight,” a category not as serious as obesity. Alaskans’ exercise habits fell short of targets, the reports said.

In addition to the 2020 scorecard for Alaskans as a whole, a separate scorecard was released that tracked the same indicators for Alaska Natives, with mostly similar trends.

Along with the final assessments for the Healthy Alaskans 2020 improvement plan and targets, the department released some preliminary findings about progress toward goals for 2030 in the form of the first scorecard for the current decade.

That scorecard noted progress in several areas, including access to fluoridated water systems, the percentage of toddlers with well-child checkups, the percentage of population living above the poverty level and reductions in alcohol-induced death rates and tobacco use.



State Labor Commissioner Resigns: No Reason Given


Alaska Beacon

The head of the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development unexpectedly resigned Tuesday, causing Gov. Mike Dunleavy to name Deputy Commissioner Cathy Muñoz the agency’s acting boss.

Commissioner Tamika Ledbetter’s resignation was announced in an email from the governor’s office Tuesday afternoon, and state legislators — including the chairs of the Senate and House labor and commerce committees — said they were surprised by the announcement.

The resignation, handed in Tuesday, was effective immediately and Ledbetter is no longer a member of the administration, said a Dunleavy official.

Rep. Jesse Sumner, R-Wasilla and chair of the House Labor and Commerce Committee, said he had just spoken with Ledbetter a few days ago, with no sign of an impending resignation.

The statement from the governor’s office did not say why Ledbetter resigned, and officials from the office were unable to immediately provide a copy of her resignation letter.

“I am very much looking forward to spending time with my family, traveling abroad and welcoming the birth of our first grandchild,” Ledbetter said in the statement from the governor’s office. 

The governor’s office did not answer a question asking whether Ledbetter resigned to spend more time with her family. A call to Muñoz’s cellphone was unanswered

Muñoz, who replaces Ledbetter, is a Republican former state representative from Juneau who has worked as deputy labor commissioner since 2018.



Public School Backers Push for More Funding


Alaska Beacon

In a series of hearings at the Capitol, teachers, administrators and concerned parents are making the case for a major increase in Alaska’s per-student funding and for other legislation that they say will help the state’s public schools.

The hearings come as the Senate Education Committee prepares to introduce legislation on the topic. The bills could be released to the public as soon as next week.

“I really want to emphasize that … (our) education foundation is cracking,” said Lisa Parady, executive director of the Alaska Council of School Administrators. “We’re in a very difficult environment across the country, and sometimes our problems in Alaska are worse than even the rest of the country.” 

The Alaska Legislature hasn’t increased the public school funding formula — known as the base student allocation — since 2016 but has intermittently approved one-time funding increases. Those increases (and subsequent COVID relief money) have run out, leaving districts with fewer ways to cope with inflation-driven cost increases. Many have cut services and staffing, increasing the number of students in each classroom.

The Institute for Social and Economic Research at the University of Alaska Anchorage concluded that by 2019, even though Alaska pays more than any other state on a per-student basis, the cost of living here is so high that once that factor is included, public schools here received less money than the national average.

Backers of public schools are mounting a major push to fix the problem and have the support of many legislators, but they’ll be competing with the Permanent Fund dividend to make the fixes they want.

In his initial December budget proposal, Gov. Mike Dunleavy proposed no increase to school funding but did include a super-sized dividend of almost $4,000 per person, based on a formula that remains in state law but that has not been followed since 2015.

Barring an unexpected surge in the price of oil — which would lift state revenue — spending more money on schools would require significant immediate tax increases or spending less money on something else, and the multibillion-dollar cost of the dividend is by far the largest piece of the budget.

“I really want to be clear that we’re not asking for whipped cream or ice cream on top of the pie. We’re just asking for crust, you know, or the filling at this point,” Parady said.

Sarah Sledge, executive director of the Coalition for Education Equity, said the backlog of major maintenance projects at public schools now exceeds $200 million. In a presentation to the Senate Education Committee, she showed a disused school building whose walls had bowed outward because of excessive snow loads.

The Association of Alaska School Boards, which represents local school districts, told the education committee that it supports a minimum increase to the BSA of $860 per student. The current amount is $5,930.

In a Monday rally outside the Capitol, educators called for an increase of more than $1,000 per student. If the 2011 BSA had simply been adjusted for modern inflation, it would be more than $7,200 per student.

 A participant in a pro-education rally holds up a sign in front of the Alaska State Capitol on Monday night. (Photo by James Brooks/Alaska Beacon)

Based on the number of students enrolled in Alaska’s K-12 schools, a $1,000 per-student increase would cost more than $130 million per year. 

That’s roughly equivalent to $205 subtracted from the Permanent Fund dividend, based on the number of recipients in 2022.

The education committee is scheduled to take additional testimony from rural experts today and will seek public testimony early next week. 

Sen. Löki Tobin, D-Anchorage and chair of the education committee, said she expects to introduce new education legislation next week in response to that testimony.

She said it isn’t clear whether there will be one bill or a collection of them, but it’s expected that legislation to increase per-student funding will be included.

“Certainly the BSA bill is going to be one of them, whenever that comes to fruition,” said Sen. Jesse Bjorkman, R-Nikiski.

The hearings this week and next will decide what’s included in legislation crafted and sponsored by the education committee.

“We want to make sure that on the front end, we clearly define the problem. I don’t want to come up with solutions that are looking for a problem to solve,” Bjorkman said. 

In addition to being a member of the education committee, Bjorkman has 14 years of experience teaching middle school and high school on the Kenai Peninsula.

He said he’s personally seen how budget cuts have hurt schools’ ability to teach career and technical education classes, keeping students from job training.

“The decline in the number of educators that we’ve had, it’s harder and harder to make good connections with kids, and help them learn on that real, tangible level,” he said.

Kids are eager to learn, he said, but they need to be taught by teachers they trust, and that takes teachers who are willing to stay at schools and not leave after a few years.

It just takes time,” he said.



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At a Glance

(updated 1-31-2023)

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 12:15 pm Tuesday, January 31.

New cases as of Tuesday: 792

Total cases (cumulative) statewide – 291,060

Total (cumulative) deaths – 1,436

Case Rate per 100,000 – 108.66

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 – 70.4

Cases in last 7 days – 6

Cumulative Sitka cases – 3,264

Deceased (cumulative) – 10

The local case data are from Alaska DHSS.






February 2003

By GIL TRUITT: It seems like only yesterday that I was aboard the Alaska Coastal Airlines Grumman Goose, taking off from Wrangell, headed for my hometown, Sitka, in February 1947. I was a student at Wrangell Institute at the time but that was quickly forgotten when the “Goose” pulled up on the Japonski Island ramp. The big student movement to Sitka from Wrangell had begun. The creation of Mt. Edgecumbe High School was under way.



February 1973

 This year’s theme for the Sitka High School girls third quarter challenge is “Beat the Pudgies.” ... Becoming a member guarantees taking off or readjusting inches, taking off excess pounds, developing muscle tone and losing unnecessary flab.