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Alaska groups scramble to rehire and restart programs after funding was vetoed, then restored

For some, it’s chaos.

Agronomist Rusty Foreaker examines hemp plants at the Alaska Plant Materials Center on Thursday. Foreaker had been working with the hemp when he was laid off after Gov. Mike Dunleavy vetoed money for the program, but he intends to come back now that the funding has been restored. The state culled nearly all of the hemp plants, leaving only 15 of the best samples of each variety, which are now in poor health due to neglect during the time when no staff was available to tend to them. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

It was an hour after Gov. Mike Dunleavy announced he would approve state funding for early education programs, a sharp reversal from his earlier vetoes, and a Kids’ Corps Inc. employee was on the phone, offering jobs back. Or at least trying to.

Two people who were hired and then put on hold under the veto said they’d already found other jobs amid the uncertainty, said Dirk Shumaker, executive director of Kids’ Corps, the organization that runs Anchorage’s Head Start program. Another three employees had also left.

“They had tons of experience. We would have loved to have them,” Shumaker said. This year’s messy budget battle, he said, “was so disruptive in so many ways.”

Across the state, Alaska organizations, agencies and programs, including Head Start, are trying to rebuild after their funding was abruptly cut in late June — three days before the fiscal year started — and then given back about seven weeks later. They’re scrambling to rehire staff and restart programs. For some, it’s chaos.

• Several Head Start programs are pushing back the start of pre-K classes this fall because they don’t yet have enough employees. Too many people left over the summer because of the initial budget veto, and the absence of funding stalled hiring.

• The Alaska State Council on the Arts is working to reopen its doors after it shut down last month. In July, its four full-time employees lost their jobs. They turned in their office keys. Their email accounts stopped working. Now, the arts council is trying to bring the employees back. But it’s a process and the office remained shuttered Friday.

• At the state’s Plant Materials Center near Palmer, staff will also be brought back from layoffs and planting eventually will be restarted to replace some of what’s missing. Staff had ripped out plants in July, including a thousand hemp plants, because the layoffs meant no one would be there to take care of them.

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Those are just a few examples among many.

Hemp plants at the Alaska Plant Materials Center on Thursday, Aug. 22, 2019 in Palmer. The state has a pilot program to research the growth, cultivation, and marketing of industrial hemp, but the plants were neglected after Gov. Mike Dunleavy vetoed funding for the program. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

The University of Alaska system is also in the throes of restructuring after it prepared for massive layoffs under a one-year, $135 million state funding cut that later got reduced to a $25 million cut this year. The organizations that receive grants for the early childhood program Parents as Teachers say they still don’t know when the state funding will come and when they can start hiring back employees.

Another state grant will help keep Anchorage’s Clare House, an emergency shelter for women and children, open during the day instead of just at night, and the Brother Francis Shelter operating at full capacity, said Lisa Aquino, executive director of Catholic Social Services.

But, she said, “I don’t know when the money is coming.”

A long and chaotic path to a budget

A few emotions were common this week among Aquino and others at several organizations contacted for this story: They said they’re thrilled funding is restored, overwhelmed by community support, exhausted by the process to get here and worried about funding for next year.

Some said they’re also mad about the fallout during this year’s seven weeks without state funding — the jobs cut, the people not served.

“I am very angry and very frustrated and very exhausted with the amount of energy and work and time that it required for countless individuals to go through this process and have their lives upended for no change,” said Mark Lackey, executive director of CCS Early Learning, the organization that runs Head Start programs in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough and Chugiak area.

The path to this year’s state operating budget, for the fiscal year that started July 1, was long and chaotic as politicians wrestled with the Permanent Fund dividend and how to close a budget gap.

The Legislature didn’t approve a state operating budget until June. Then on June 28, Dunleavy announced more than $400 million in vetoes to that budget, triggering protests and fueling a recall effort. After a failed attempt to override the vetoes, legislators agreed to add most of the state funding back into another bill.

Finally on Monday, Dunleavy approved restoring some of the funding he’d cut, but again vetoed more than $200 million of it.

‘Putting the pieces back together’ at Head Start

Surviving the second round of vetoes: About $6.8 million in state funding for Head Start programs that provide free pre-K, meals and other services to low-income children.

Officials with the programs said they’re now trying to quickly fill positions and enroll families before classes resume in September.

“I think everybody is putting the pieces back together as quickly as they can,” Lackey said.

Teacher Nicole Lezama leads children in a dance at a Kids' Corps, Inc. Pre-K program Tuesday, July 9, 2019 in Anchorage. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

Lackey is currently trying to hire people to work at the Head Start location in Chugiak so it can open this year.

If the budget cut had stuck, Lackey had planned to close Chugiak Head Start, which served about 60 children and their families.

The uncertainty drove too many key employees to transfer, he said. Until he’s able to fill those jobs, the Chugiak program remains closed.

“I have families calling me every day, and I keep telling them, ‘Check back,’” he said. “But families have to make plans.”

In Anchorage, most Head Start classrooms will start three weeks later this year, on Sept. 24.

That’s because the two employees who enroll families typically come back to work around July 15, Shumaker said. But without money to pay them, they didn’t return until recently this year.

“Because the situation was so uncertain, we had to assume the worst,” he said.

Teacher Nicole Lezama talks with children at a Kids' Corps, Inc. Pre-K program Tuesday, July 9, 2019 in Anchorage. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

He’s also still hiring. Over the summer, the program lost five of its 70 employees. They said the budget uncertainty prompted them to leave, according to Shumaker.

Starting programs later means current employees will stay laid off longer, he said. They won’t receive the September income they expected. Families will also have to find child care to fill the gap.

At the Rural Alaska Community Action Program Inc., the largest provider of Head Start services in Alaska, they’re focused on hiring, training and resetting the programs now that this year’s budget is settled, said Kristin Ramstad, RurAL CAP child development division director.

This summer was Ramstad’s most difficult in her more than 20 years with Head Start, she said.

“Just because of the complete uncertainty and the exhaustion at the same time,” she said.

There was the advocacy, the weekly email updates to staff and the countless phone calls answering questions, she said. They also had to plan what sites would close if the budget cut didn’t get reversed, because they’d have to cut spending right away.

“To call the sites that were named at risk for closure was absolutely devastating,” Ramstad said. “I can say, without a doubt, it was the worst day of my career.”

About 10 employees left the programs this summer because of the budget, she said. Together, they had more than 60 years’ experience with Head Start.

The looming funding cut made it difficult to fill the jobs, Ramstad said. Due to staffing shortages, some classrooms won’t open on time.

Alaska state agriculture director David Schade stands next to hemp plants at the Alaska Plant Materials Center on Thursday in Palmer. The state has a pilot program to research the growth, cultivation, and marketing of industrial hemp, but the plants were neglected after Gov. Mike Dunleavy vetoed funding for the program in June. The funding has now been restored, but it will take time to bring the plants back to health. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

Tough decisions’ at the Alaska Division of Agriculture

At the Alaska Division of Agriculture, letters are going out to call back laid-off employees, said state agriculture director David Schade.

Dunleavy’s first round of vetoes had triggered the loss of 17 agriculture division positions and resulted in the layoffs of eight people. Funding is now added back for all positions but two tied to the Agricultural Revolving Loan Fund, Schade said.

“We’ll have some people who come back and some people who have already declined to come back,” he said. “There are consequences to actions and some people already have new, great jobs, so I wish them well.”

Across state government, Dunleavy’s initial vetoes led to the elimination of 68 positions, 23 filled and 45 vacant. Under the bill that added some funding back, as approved by the governor on Monday, 23 of the position were restored — 12 that had been previously filled, according to the state Office of Management and Budget.

For the Division of Agriculture, Dunleavy has agreed with the legislators’ decision to add back $375,000 in funding this year for the state’s hemp program, a potentially lucrative industry centered on CBD oil. About $2.4 million was also added back for other agriculture programs, including marketing Alaska products and seed production.

Agronomist Rusty Foreaker samples a tomato from a research plot at the Alaska Plant Materials Center on Thursday. In June Gov. Mike Dunleavy vetoed funding for 17 agriculture division positions, including Foreaker's, leaving the facility with not enough staff to care for the plants, which withered in the dry conditions. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

Schade said he didn’t know by Friday how many employees would return to their jobs. He said the division continues the process of resuming programs. He’s also looking at realigning the division.

There is some rebuilding to do too: Last month, staff ripped out plants at the state’s Plant Materials Center, including all but a handful of hemp plants, and stopped maintaining all but one of their greenhouses, Schade said. The employee who normally worked on those greenhouses was laid off.

“We had to make tough decisions and we did,” Schade said.

Since then weeds have taken charge of drought-stricken plots outside, and the few hemp plants, without anyone to care for them, were infested with spider mites.

Hemp starts grow in agar at the Alaska Plant Materials Center on Thursday. To get rid of the spider mites, cuttings were taken and new plants will be grown in sterile conditions from those cuttings, and the existing plants will be destroyed. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

‘They all turned in their keys’ at the arts council

Keren Lowell learned from a phone call on June 28, about 30 minutes before the public announcement, that Dunleavy had stripped away all of the funding for the Alaska State Council on the Arts.

By 4 p.m. that day, Lowell had more news: She was alerted by email that she had lost her job as the council’s visual and literary arts program director. Her three colleagues’ jobs were also cut.

They had until July 15 to completely shut down the agency that had existed for more than 50 years. It was an impossible task, Lowell said.

They had to pay bills and file paperwork. They notified artists and organizations that had received the now-canceled grants. They shut down programs, cleaned their desks and met with HR about their retirement and the ending of their health insurance. They cashed out any leave and turned in their keys.

“People were devastated,” said Lowell, 57. “It felt unceremonious and very hasty and really, really traumatic.”

Keren Lowell, second from right, is comforted outside the organization’s Mountain View offices at the close of its last day on July 15, 2019. “We did a good job. I’m proud of what we did, ’ Lowell said. (Marc Lester / ADN)

There were some items they just couldn’t get to.

That included the Alaska Contemporary Art Bank, the source of hundreds of works by Alaska artists that are on loan to courthouses and public office buildings as far away as Washington, D.C.

Under the program, the receiver of the art pays to have it shipped out and the arts council pays for the return shipping. There was no way to call back all the art at once, so fast — no money, no official plan, said Benjamin Brown of Juneau, who has been chairman of the council since 2007.

“That would have been a huge nightmare, monetarily and logistically,” he said.

Now that all of the funding — nearly $3.9 million — is restored to the arts council, Brown said he’s hoping to hire back the four full-time employees. Between them, they’d worked more than 50 years with the council, he said.

“This has been a traumatic experience for so many people, including our wonderful staff,” Brown said. “We hope they come back.”

Once staff return, the arts council can begin restarting its programs, including grant funding to artists, he said.

Lowell described this year’s decision to reinstate funding for the arts council as “a small miracle in an ocean of devastation.”

But she’s still unsure whether she’ll go back.

Beth Adams, left, and Keren Lowell set up a table to gather signatures of support for the effort to recall Gov. Mike Dunleavy at the Anchorage Senior Activity Center on August 23, 2019. (Marc Lester / ADN)

She hasn’t gotten the job offer yet and she doesn’t know the terms, she said. Also, with a son in college and tuition bills to pay, she said she had to pick up other work after getting laid off. She has constructed a deck and remodeled a bathroom and has painting jobs lined up. She has become involved in an effort to recall the governor from office.

She said she also worries about whether the arts council will be back in the same place again next year, fighting for funding as lawmakers again wrestle with the budget.