'Ifs' aren't healthy for school district budget

That the preliminary budget approved by the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District Board of Education has a number of “ifs” in it is reason enough to pause. It’s difficult enough to build a spending plan, nevermind trying to do so when while looking into a crystal ball just to figure out how much money there is to spend.

But the size of the “ifs” in the school district’s budget are of even greater concern. As it stands, the school district isn’t talking about a couple hundred thousand dollars to cover some unexpected expenses. The uncertain elements in the revenue stream instead run into the millions of dollars — up to $1.7 million from the state if the Legislature fully funds the governor’s budget; up to $1.6 million from the borough if the mayor and assembly allocate additional funds. If additional funding comes from the borough or state, the district still will need to spend $1 million from it’s fund balance; if not, the district could be looking at spending as much as $2.6 million from its savings account.

As Assistant Superintendent Dave Jones noted, it’s one thing to draw on savings for a one-time expense, but quite another to do so for recurring expenses.

“That fund balance, once you spend it, you don’t have it to spend again,” Jones said. “... The best way to spend unassigned fund balance is to spend it on one-time type of expenditures, not recurring expenditures. The problem with our deficit right now is, it includes recurring salary and benefit kind of debt.”

That leads to another significant “if” — if nothing changes, there will come a point when the district is no longer able to use savings to meet budget shortfalls. When that happens, the district will be facing significant spending cuts.

Certainly, it’s important that the district be able to continue to deliver the best education possible to our communities. The $149 million budget OK’d this week maintains the same staffing and programs as this year’s budget, and even that leaves some wanting for more, such as additional electives or cocurricular activities.

In years past, the district has generally been able to pull a rabbit out of the hat.

The district’s funding picture should become clearer over the next month as the Legislature is due to wrap up its work and the borough will have a good idea of what its budget will look like. Hopefully, at that time, the school district budget won’t look so “iffy.”

But at some point, we are going to run out of rabbits and magic hats. Then what?

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