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Schools face dire cutbacks

District numbers not adding up

Posted: Sunday, February 03, 2002

Kenai Peninsula schools may suffer layoffs, bigger classes, fewer student opportunities and possibly even a staff strike next fall depending on events in the next few months.

Beginning Tuesday, citizens around the peninsula can learn about the schools' financial straits and suggest ways to deal with them. School board members and district senior managers will conduct a series of public hearings to solicit input on the 2002-2003 district operating budget.

Preliminary numbers, introduced at a work session Jan. 21, show a fiscal gap of more than $1.4 million. That number may change in the coming months.

"Understand that we're in a world of hurt," Superintendent Donna Peterson told district employees in a Jan. 23 memo.

The Kenai Peninsula Borough School District has initiated a hiring freeze and is off to a rocky start in negotiating future salaries and benefits for its more than 1,000 employees.

"For 10-plus years we have made all the possible cuts: There is simply nothing else to cut, and yet, we've got to find a way to deliver a balanced budget, and that is going to mean cutting almost $1.5 million more," she wrote.

Revenue declines, contract talks and pending school funding legislation have everyone involved with the district in suspense. How the contract negotiations and the legislative session play out will have a major impact on borough students' futures.

Administrators and employee union representatives have all called for more public involvement in scrutinizing the district's finances and relaying concerns to Juneau.

The district has suffered years of declining funding since Alaska's oil boom wound down in the late 1970s and especially since the area recession in the late 1980s. Adjusted for inflation, spending per student has fallen almost every year for more than a decade.

The results have included many cuts in school programs such as vocational courses and the failure of salaries for district employees to keep pace with cost-of-living increases.

In 1997, the district enrollment began decreasing -- something that had never happened before. The district now has fewer students than it did in 1994 and projects that enrollment will continue declining until at least 2008 if current trends persist.

Because funding for school districts is based on enrollment numbers and limited by state law, the shrinking student body means revenue declines exacerbating the eroding effects of inflation.

The combination of lower state revenue, uncertainty about major grant support and soaring health insurance costs leave the district with a preliminary deficit of $1,453,435.

Finance Director Melody Douglas explained that the preliminary budget numbers are based on extreme restraints, specifically a salary freeze and the elimination of 26 teaching positions.

"The biggie is freezing salaries," she said.

That proposal is getting a chilly reception from the employee unions, which are trying to negotiate pay raises for their members.

Cathy Carrow, vice president of the Kenai Peninsula Education Association and a member of the bargaining team representing the teachers, said, "I feel comfortable saying that the vast majority of our membership will not accept a salary freeze -- we can't afford it."

Douglas also predicted larger class sizes.

"We're going to have to do something with our staffing formula," she said.

"Either we get more money in some fashion or we have to have less staff."

The cuts will include 15 jobs lost because of enrollment declines and 11 because of grant programs expiring. The district will not know until May if further grant funding for those positions will be available.

According to the enrollment projections for next year, the schools with the biggest enrollment declines will be Kenai Middle, Homer Middle, Seward Elementary, Soldotna Middle, Tustumena Elementary and Kalifornsky Beach Elementary schools.

The district's budget committee began meeting last week to look at ways of bridging the $1.4 million shortfall. Monday at 2:30 p.m. the school board will review the preliminary budget in a work session downstairs at the Borough Building in Soldotna prior to its regular meeting at 7:30 p.m.

All committee meetings and work sessions are open to the public.

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