Kenai Peninsula not alone in facing financial problems

Posted: Thursday, January 29, 2004

The Kenai Peninsula Borough School District announced this week that its budget may be in worse shape than previously expected. But it's not the only district in the state feeling the strain of tight financial times.

Two of the larger school districts in the state Anchorage and Fairbanks-North Star also are complaining of budget shortfalls for the 2004-05 school year.

Both have announced potential cuts to teachers and programs, as well as increased fees for student activities.

The Kenai Peninsula may be even worse off, though, according to superintendent Donna Peterson.

That's because, unlike Anchorage and Fairbanks, where borough statutes have capped property tax dollars for schools below the state maximum, the Kenai Peninsula Borough funds schools "at the cap."

That means even if citizens here were willing, additional money could not be raised locally for education.

Furthermore, Peterson said, the cuts those districts are threatening were made years ago on the peninsula.

"Kindergarten aides? We've never had kindergarten aides," she said.

"They're talking about cutting planning time (for teachers) in middle schools. That went away five years ago (here)."

Peterson compares the peninsula to the canary in the coal mine, being the first to feel the effects of dangerous trends.

"That they're in trouble may get the Legislature's attention," she said.

But, Peterson warned, the problem is bigger than any one district.

"The idea that investment is important to education isn't out there with the public," she said. "Legislators are representatives of their publics. There certainly isn't a unified cry."

Part of the problem, Peterson said, is with the state's approach to funding education.

Peterson said the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District has been shortchanged for more than 20 years under the state's area cost differential, which funds districts at different levels based on geography. Under the area cost differential, the Kenai is considered only slightly more rural than Anchorage and more urban than the Matanuska-Susitna Borough.

Likewise, the district's most recent bad news is a direct product of the funding formula, Peterson said.

In an effort to improve the efficiency of both instruction and operations, the district was considering consolidating several schools.

However, because schools with more students are funded at a lower percentage than those with few student, consolidation would have cost about $3.5 million in lost revenue.

That's ironic, considering state leaders have been calling for more efficient government. For example, Gov. Frank Murkowski last June praised the KPBSD for a decision to consolidate Nikiski and North Star elementary schools.

"We've seen a rather remarkable reaction where districts begin to look internally at increasing efficiency. We've seen a consolidation on the Kenai Peninsula, saving some $250,000," Murkowski said.

"I can't help but pick up on the remarks of one gentleman representing the school board on the Kenai Peninsula. And I quote, 'It's hard to remain credible if we have two schools less than half full less than five miles apart from each other and whine that we're broke,'" the governor said, quoting then-board president Joe Arness. "Well, they did something about it. They reviewed their situation and took appropriate action."

Peterson said she believes legislators likely will look at the recent budget situation and point to a broken funding formula. And, she agreed, the formula is broken.

But she added the financial problems in the district and the state also are symptomatic of a quick-fix mentality that results in less than thorough planning.

"Everybody's got a better plan, but let's stay at the table long enough to see the ramifications of the plan," she said. "There's a shortsightedness, a lack of investment in the future, a lot of quick answers to complex questions.

"This house of cards is so close to falling in on itself. We're perpetuating our own demise, dismantling a great district, quickly.

"Is the face of public education going to be so changed by shortsighted decisions that the entire democracy pays the price?"

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