It's budget time, and lawmakers need to listen


Posted: Sunday, January 20, 2008

Administrators and school board members of the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District are now starting what has become, in recent years, the most frustrating and demoralizing part of their jobs: setting the budget.

What makes the process even more difficult is that the district is essentially working with a hypothetical budget. Nearly 65 percent $76.6 million is the projected number for next year of the district's general fund comes from the state. About 34 percent of the budget projected at $41 million for next year comes from the borough, but those funds are capped by a formula tied to the state's contribution.

Problem is, the budget usually is the last thing the Legislature gets to, and it is usually the object of a great deal of political maneuvering on the final day of the session, sometime in May. The school district is required to have its budget complete and to notify teachers who will be laid off well before then. The result is a great deal of angst, poor morale, and a whole pile of pink slips for staff that may prove unnecessary when the final numbers are approved by the governor.

Last summer, the Legislature convened a task force to look at the way the state funds education. Among the task force's recommendations is a solution to break the annual doom and gloom of the budget cycle: that the Legislature expedite a stand-alone appropriation to fund the base student allocation formula by the 60th day of the session this year that falls on March 15. The task force also recommended that the Legislature's education committees look at alternative ways to alleviate the problems arising from the difference in budget cycles.

We hope the Legislature is listening. It is a shame that in a state with as much public wealth as we have, our lawmakers play politics with public education. Education funding should be a bipartisan effort, not political leverage.

The task force also recommended changes to the way in which state funding is allocated, particularly the area cost differential, a formula which is supposed to account for the increased costs in rural school districts. For years, the district has argued that it has been short-changed as the formula for the district does not take into account the rural nature of many of the borough's schools.

During last year's session, legislators from other parts of the state faulted the peninsula for maintaining schools in small communities. That thinking needs to change.

State funding for education may never flow as freely as it did in oil boom days, but our district budget process should not be the funeral dirge it has become. We hope the Legislature follows through with the task force's recommendations. Our district needs that kind of forward thinking.

The school district will host a series of public budget forums in the next two weeks, starting at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Kenai Central High School. Forums will follow on Thursday at 7 p.m. at Seward High School, and on Jan. 30 at 7 p.m. at Homer High School.

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