Delivering education a delicate balancing act

It has become popular of late to use the “three-legged stool” analogy to describe the Alaska economy. The concept is that if you fiddle too much with one of the legs, the whole stool will topple.

We’re learning that this analogy also seems to be appropriate to describe funding and staffing for Kenai Peninsula schools. The three legs would represent school funding, school staffing levels, and student enrollment numbers. And as the district is experiencing in a number of locations, changes to any one of those legs can result in a cycle of consequences that affect the other two.

At a recent school board meeting, those impacts were illustrated with testimony from several schools. In each case, changes to one leg were impacting another. In Hope, an increase in the student population is reportedly putting a strain on the school’s lone teacher. Razdolna would like a Russian language teacher, but the position hasn’t been budgeted for. Seward is looking at lost electives due to a drop in enrollment. And the discussion of school reconfiguration in Soldotna continues.

The process starts with funding — the district is allocated a certain amount per student from the state, with a large contribution from the borough and additional funds from the federal government.

The school district then come comes up with a spending and staffing plan for each of its 43 schools, budgeted roughly according to the enrollment in each location.

That may be an oversimplified description of a complex budgeting process, but it serves to illustrate a point. Change the allocation from the borough, state or federal government, or change the number of students enrolled, and the district will have to re-evaluate the staffing — and programs offered — at a particular school.

Likewise, changes to staffing and programs offered can have effects on enrollment, as inequities in the formula — some real, some perceived — can lead to shifts in the student population. This is especially true in a district as disparate as this one, which includes schools in relatively urban settings as well as schools that are essentially one- or two-room school houses in some of its rural communities.

The task of keeping each of those legs intact, and in balance with the other two, is further complicated by the fact that funding and student enrollment are frequently big variables in the district’s budget formula. Despite its best projections, district enrollment numbers at any particular school can change dramatically, with little or no warning. Likewise, administrators are forced to develop their budget before lawmakers have decided just how much funding schools will get.

Given those challenges, creating and maintaining a stable platform from which to deliver a quality education to all of the district’s students is an impressive balancing act indeed.

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