Governor Mike Dunleavy announced two education bills on March 7th — one of which is a school staffing incentive that will provide full-time teachers a cash payment each July for a period of three years. 

Before the Petersburg School District’s March board meeting, Superintendent Erica Kludt-Painter said that staffing shortages are high on the board’s list of concerns. 

“It’s really at a crisis state,” said Kludt-Painter. “Even now, we’ve had a couple of retirements, a few resignations, and people doing different things with their next steps in life. Typically, we’ve been at a place where we have a lot of applicants — people come and they move here, and they want to stay and raise a family and do all those things.” 

Kludt-Painter says the pool of applicants who want to teach in Alaska is very small. Compounding that, salaries have not kept up with the local cost of living, and Petersburg’s housing shortage makes it challenging for new hires to find a place to live. Kludt-Painter says it’s difficult for the school district to compete against schools in other parts of the United States for skilled applicants. 

“Down south, they may have a lower cost of living, they may be able to find housing a different way,” said Kludt-Painter. “So those are absolutely those are questions that people are asking us. I’ve never had this many conversations with people about the price of food, availability of travel, housing availability, health insurance, retirement concerns.”

Retention is the other half of the problem. Kludt-Painter says high staff turnover uses up valuable resources and hurts the district’s quality of education. 

“People come — they might come for four or five years — and then they move on,” said Kludt-Painter. “And that is not what we want. We want to invest in high quality people. We want them to stay, raise their families, work in our schools, become important members of our community. And that stability and security is important for our community, but also just instructionally. If you have to keep starting over every year with new people and retraining, it’s not helpful in the overall picture for our kids in their learning.”

The Teacher Retention and Recruitment Incentive bill outlines three cash payment tiers for each school district: $5,000, $10,000 or $15,000. The highest payment tier — $15,000 — is directed at Alaska’s most remote and rural schools. The middle tier — $10,000 —is targeted at rural schools that are still connected to Alaska’s urban areas. The lowest tier — $5,000 — is focused on bringing teachers to Alaska’s most urbanized areas.

A separate bill to give the state more control over local schools accompanied the Retention and Recruitment Incentive. The Parental Rights in Education bill would require parental notification before a student participates in sex education and any activity, class or program relating to gender identity. The bill also requires written permission from a parent before a student can change their preferred name or pronouns.

Following Gov. Dunleavy’s announcement, the Alaska House Coalition issued a statement praising the teacher hiring and retention bonuses, but denouncing the Parental Rights bill as, “A distraction that will do nothing to fix overcrowded classrooms, while removing local control and adding another layer of bureaucracy.”