Public participation key to solving state, school district woes

Posted: Sunday, February 03, 2002

The Kenai Peninsula Borough School Dis-trict is facing some tough decisions.

With preliminary numbers showing a budget gap of more than $1.4 million, officials are talking about the real possibilities of layoffs, bigger class sizes, frozen wages, fewer student opportunities and school closures.

The bleak budget picture comes at a time when the district is beginning to negotiate new contracts with the teachers' and support staff unions. Those contracts expire at the end of June, and already there's talk of strikes if more money isn't forthcoming.

As one school official so succinctly put it: "It's ugly."

There does, however, seem to be at least one point of consensus about the school district's budget problems: The state needs to increase funding for education.

There's just one problem. The state is facing about a $1 billion budget shortfall itself, and everyone is saying they need more, not less, money.

Where is the money to balance both the state and school district budgets going to come from?

Judging from the way some of us talk, Alaskans seem to think somebody's hiding a secret grove of money trees that will continue to fund life as we've known it since the boom days of oil.

The reality is there are some hard decisions to be made. Life in Alaska is going to change. Like it or not, ready or not, the days of no taxes and free money are coming to an end.

The sooner Alaskans come out of denial about the state's financial situation, the quicker a solution will be reached and the less painful the solution will be. Unfortunately, few people are telling legislators they're willing to be taxed or the state should take money from the earnings of the permanent fund to help pay for the way of life we've enjoyed for the past two decades. While there's still a lot of "cut the budget" talk, no one is offering up their favorite program to be axed.

There's no simple solution to either the school district's or the state's money woes, but there are some things everyone can do to help find an answer. For residents who want to be part of the solution, here are some suggestions:

n The school district is conducting informational presentations about next school year's budget over the next two weeks. Be there. (A complete schedule of those presentations can be found on page A-11 of today's paper.)

The presentations have two important purposes: to educate about the school district's budget situation and to get ideas from the public to help guide the district in its budget deliberations. It's a time to learn about the budget, ask questions and offer suggestions.

n Almost everyone would agree that education should be the priority for any increases in state funding. Let legislators know this also is your priority.

Legislators have heard and will be hearing lots more from those within the school district about how more money is needed. Legislators also need to hear from those who don't get a district paycheck. You don't have to have children or grandchildren in school to know the value of an excellent school system. Schools are the hearts of our neighborhoods. Excellence in education is tied to a community's economic health.

n A lot of lip service is given to how children are the state's future and greatest resource. Now, Alaskans have the opportunity to put their money where their mouths are. Tell legislators you are willing to pay to see an increase in funding for education. Tell them you are willing to see a smaller dividend if it means more money for schools on the Kenai Peninsula.

n Unless there really is a secret grove of money trees somewhere, Alaskans won't be able to have their cake and eat it too. Suggest specific cuts. Let legislators and school district officials know what you can live without -- and what you can't.

n When times get tough, it's easy to resort to finger pointing and playing the blame game about why we're in the mess we're in. Resolve not to go there. Alaskans are in this budget quagmire together. We'll more readily lift ourselves out of it by working together.

In tough times like these it pays to remember the "unity" of community. Taking adversarial positions fails to recognize we all want the same thing. In the case of the school district, the goal should be providing the best education possible. In the case of legislators, it should be closing the state's budget gap as quickly and painlessly as possible.

Don't forget: Your ideas are needed and have been requested. The school district budget presentations not only are a learning opportunity but also an invitation to be part of the solution.

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