Tough decisions ahead on school district budget

News coming out of a recent meeting of the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District’s budget committee should give our community reason for concern: Assistant Superintendent Dave Jones reported that some of the revenue streams that contributed to the district’s healthy fund balance are no longer available.

To balance its budget for the current school year, the district opted to dip into its fund balance for $2.7 million rather than making cuts. But to help explain just what the district gets for that money, Jones put it in terms of the number of teachers that $2.7 million covers: 32.5 positions.

As large as the district is — 44 schools, some 1,300 staff and nearly 9,000 students — 32.5 positions is a lot of teachers. The take-away is that as the district begins planning next year’s budget, there are no easy ways to make up that difference.

Certainly, it’s important to keep in mind that this is very early in the budgeting process for the district. School districts have some of the most complex budgets you’ll see, with federal, state and local funding sources — many of which come with all sorts of strings attached that dictate how that money has to be spent. On top of that, all of those sources are moving pieces at the moment, subject to change with very little notice.

Despite all that, the district has, over the years, become adept at putting together a good preliminary budget. And now is the time to be talking about how to address an anticipated shortfall — especially one as big as $2.7 million. We certainly agree with Jones’ assessment that “to run a $2.7 million dollar deficit, that’s a dangerous thing to do for very long.”

Jones also noted that, if cuts need to be made, teaching staff would not be the only personnel to be cut. Administration and support staff also would be trimmed in an effort to make up the deficit. The budget committee also talked about other measures, such as a four-day school week or higher student-teacher ratios. Other ideas that have been considered in the past include reconfiguring, closing or consolidating some of the district’s schools.

While the district administration crunches the numbers, it’s important for the community to weigh in on its priorities. Which solution works best for us on the Peninsula? When we demand that the school district present a balanced budget, which items are we willing to live without? If additional funding from the federal or state government doesn’t materialize, which programs are we willing to pay a little more in local taxes to maintain?

None of these choices are easy, but we need to consider them now — before circumstances limit potential solutions. One way or another something needs to change, either on the revenue or the expenditure side of the ledger. Let’s make those decisions with the best information available — and with constructive community input guiding the process.

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