For a short time Tuesday night, schools from all corners of the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District were connected by a common cause and presentation: the budget.
Superintendent Sean Dusek presented an overview of the district’s 2017-18 budget and explained the process for figuring out the Fiscal Year 2019 budget in a video teleconference session Tuesday during district-wide community budget meetings. Schools acorss the district invited parents, teachers and anyone concerned with the district’s budget to participate. District representatives were also on hand to facilitate discussion about the budget, where cuts can possibly be made, and how to work toward sustainable funding for education.
While graduation rates for the district have gone up since 2010, enrollment — a major factor in the funding formula — has decreased. It has remained somewhat static since FY 2016, according to Dusek’s presentation, and is projected at 8,781 for FY 18
According to Dusek’s presentation, the current FY ‘18 general fund budget accounts for $138.2 million in revenues and about $138.6 million in expenditures. The district’s fund balance will be drawn on to the tune of $321,978, but Dusek noted in his presentation that there is a “strong possibility” of having about 100 fewer students enrolled than originally projected, so the fund balance could be tapped a little more.
There are a few, according to Dusek and the administration gathered at the different site locations. One of the biggest hurdles facing the school district, though, is a lack of forward funding for schools. Waiting for the state to approve its budget means waiting on filling positions and other uncertainties.
“One of my biggest frustrations being on the assembly the past two years is the lack of forward funding, and that’s really difficult,” said Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly member Willy Dunne of Homer, who was at the meeting at Homer Middle School.
Another issue is that schools are running out of places to trim without having an effect in the classrooms.
“We’ve made reductions, the easy cuts have been made,” Assistant Superintendent Dave Jones said at the site meeting at Kenai Central High School. “We’re going to have to start getting drastic and looking in different places.”
During the breakout sessions, Homer High School Principal Doug Waclawski noted that if his school were to cut the things he has control over that are not physical staff, the savings would only amount to about $150,000.
“That’s everything,” he said. “You know, that’s travel for sports, that’s all supplies, that’s the copy machines. … We couldn’t do that. But if we did, that’s about a teacher and a half,” he said.
Waclawski said that when cuts are made, it’s a matter of the administrative staff deciding where to direct them, with the input of the community. Usually what happens is that a couple sections are cut from each of the main subject areas, he said.
“We could do that, but at some point the cuts come to the point where you can’t take another section of, you know, ceramics,” Waclawski said. “… So, you know, does a program have to go?”
Finding things to cut is even harder at very small schools, like Razdolna and Kachemak-Selo, according to Timothy Whip, administrator for both those schools at the head of Kachemak Bay.
For Whip, the two have run out of areas to cut that aren’t people in the schools. Neither school has a lot of extra resources or programs, he said.
“I think with us, that’s the only place you can cut,” he said.
Going forward, maintaining his staffing levels is Whip’s greatest focus.
“For small schools, you still need a certain number of teachers, and we’re getting down there already,” he said. “The last couple years the district has kept it steady, so we haven’t lost any staff, but that’s my main concern.”
Mountain View Elementary Principal Karl Kircher also explained that although cuts may not too noticeable now, as a school’s personal savings dwindle, things could get worse.
“As the funding has decreased, we’ve been going into our own savings, our own little chunk of funds,” Kircher said. “You may not have that ‘Oh my God, the sky is falling,’ moment yet, but if funding continues to decrease we’ll have a double wave of loss and you’ll see it.”
What can be done?
Several people at Tuesday’s meeting in Homer and Kenai talked about advocating to state legislators as a major way of turning the tides for funding in education.
“We’re at a critical time … solutions need to be had at the state level,” Jones said.
Dunne said it’s going to be important for residents to stay in touch with not only legislators, but local assembly members, too.
“I think we’ll have a majority of the assembly that understands the importance of education, but (the) budget’s tight, and we’re facing a $4 million deficit at the borough, too,” he said.
The school district is slated to start working with the borough on its FY 19 budget in December. Dunne said the assembly’s main focus will be on looking at ways to supplement revenue, after suffering what he called a setback when the measure to raise the borough’s sales tax cap failed in the October election.
Principals from each school were asked to compile discussion questions which will be turned in to the district and Jones encouraged anyone with ideas or questions to reach out.
“When you’re driving home at night or wake up at three in the morning with that idea saying ‘I’ve just saved the district,’ well, I’m ready for it,” Jones said.
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