Fiscal gap limits funding options

Finances bleak without new revenues

Posted: Sunday, February 03, 2002

If a significant funding increase does not come from Juneau this year, schools on the Kenai Peninsula will likely see teacher layoffs, frozen wages, larger classes and possibly even school closures in the future.

Kenai Peninsula Board of Education president Nels Anderson said the board is lobbying lawmakers in Juneau to fund schools adequately, but in conversations with Sen. John Torgerson, R-Kasilof, and Rep. Drew Scalzi, R-Homer, Anderson said the reports aren't promising.

Anderson said while the peninsula legislators are understanding of the district's budget problems, they have suggested schools could see a state funding increase similar to last year's $20 million boost statewide, although considering the current state budget, legislators aren't promising anything.

Scalzi said education is his top priority, but without a new funding source for the state, he won't suggest funding increases for education or anything else.

"Everybody's coming to me right now saying they need more money," Scalzi said. "I feel strongly enough about holding the line on spending that until this Legislature comes up with new revenue, I don't think we can responsibly continue to go in debt."

Torgerson said he is working to increase state education funding by upward of $22 million, which he said would compensate for inflation.

"If anything gets increased funding, it's (kindergarten) through (grade) 12 that gets the top of my priority list," Torgerson said.

While the state increased education funding last year and kept the district from making drastic cuts, the increase was about half what the board had lobbied for.

"It kept us from having to fire a bunch of people to make the budget fit," Anderson said.

This year, however, the situation is different. Federal funding that supported smaller class sizes in the early elementary grades is gone, and other grant programs have been eliminated, Anderson said.

"This year is worse than last year. We are looking at laying off 26 teachers" in addition to any layoffs from the district's gradual student decline, he said. "That hurts."

The district has already implemented a hiring freeze, and though school employees are currently negotiating their salary contracts with the district, a salary freeze is being considered for next year's budget.

While the subject is far from popular, Anderson said, the board must consider the possibility of closing schools if lawmakers don't increase funding or other funding sources aren't found.

"I'll say it," Anderson said. "The only way to reduce operating costs is by closing schools."

Though it's been several years since the district took a close look at closing schools, Anderson said schools cost anywhere from $1.2 million for a high school to $400,000 for an elementary school, just to open the doors. That doesn't include staffing costs, he said.

"The only way to save money is to consolidate," he said. "It hasn't been looked at for a few years, but it was brought up at a recent budget meeting, so I'm sure it will be looked at."

One of the biggest challenges for the Kenai Peninsula School District, according to Anderson, is the variety of schools the district oversees. The central peninsula schools are larger, but many schools in the district are in remote locations, such as the Russian village schools and those across Kachemak Bay.

Anderson said the district currently is funded at a rate similar to Anchorage.

"The small schools are much more expensive than a school like Service or Dimond" high schools in Anchorage, Anderson said. "To be put in the same boat is a bad deal."

One of the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly's top priorities this year is a request to re-examine the state's classification of the peninsula's cost of living. If the state reconsidered the peninsula as having a higher living cost, it would change the state funding of schools as well.

Torgerson said, however, that while the state has been asking for a study of the classification on the peninsula, he doesn't believe that study will be completed this year. Even if it is, Torgerson said, he doesn't think the changes would bring significantly more money to the district.

The borough has listed other education funding issues on its state funding wish list, including a request that the district fund the state Education Foundation Formula to include an annual adjustment for inflation, a request for the state to fund transportation costs and a request for the state to fund vocational education.

Assembly member and former school board member Milli Martin of Homer said education is at the top of her list of issues.

"We are in trouble this year and we know that," Martin said.

Years of funding cuts to education, combined with a decline in student population on the peninsula have taken their toll, she said. Many teachers buy thousands of dollars worth of supplies each year out of their own pockets, Martin said.

"They do it gladly, but it shouldn't be," Martin said.

She said she has heard people say it doesn't matter if you are a teacher, an administrator or a student, the funding cuts have affected the schools.

"We need more money to teach our children," Martin said. "This is our future, and if we don't do something about it, it's not going to be pretty."

Scalzi said his personal opinion is that teachers are underpaid, but said finger-pointing won't solve the problem.

"I've listened to the teachers on teleconference saying it's our problem, find the money," Scalzi said. "I say, 'No, we are all in this together, all Alaskans.' I hear very few groups coming out and saying, 'Tax me, take some earnings out of the permanent fund earnings.'"

Scalzi said he and other legislators are working hard to increase funding sources for the state.

"I want people to know that our No. 1 priority is to create a sound and excellent education system in the state, but we need the people behind us. We need to develop these revenue streams, because I'll tell you what, the well is running dry," Scalzi said.

Carey James is a reporter for the Homer News.

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