Are taxpayers getting their money's worth from the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District? Helping answer that question, Dave Jones, assistant superintendent for the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District, offered an evening of "Budget 101" at Mariner Theater last month, giving the public a look at the district's budget process.
The glimpse at where dollars come from and how they're used was the fifth such meeting held around the district. This month the school board will review preliminary budget information for fiscal year 2011 and hold a work session with the borough assembly before presenting the budget at the board's March 1 meeting.
"One thing we feel in Homer, or have felt over the years, is a lack of transparency in how decisions are made. I know it's just the way it is because we're so far away. So, to have someone make this effort was great," said Sara Reinert of Homer, referring to the distance separating Homer from the district's administrative offices in Soldotna. Reinert is a parent, serves on the site councils at Homer Middle and Homer High schools and does a volunteer "Math Counts" program at HMS. She also teaches math at Kachemak Bay Campus, Kenai Peninsula College-University of Alaska Anchorage.
Janet McNary, a parent and two-year member of the HHS site council and a member of middle school's site council, also appreciated Jones' open-book presentation.
"It's good for the system of funding to be transparent and good for the district to make an effort to make it understandable to the taxpayers," McNary said. "I think that we all have a right to know and try to understand how the district and the state use taxpayer money to fund education. It's good for the district to explain the particulars so that people can understand why it's important to fund to the cap."
Being funded to the cap -- the maximum amount that can be raised from local sources as determined by the State Public School Funding Program -- by the Kenai Peninsula Borough sets the district apart. KPBSD is the only large district in Alaska to have that level of local support, as was pointed out by Jones during his Mariner Theater presentation. For fiscal year 2009-2010, total revenues for the district were $141 million, with the local contribution totaling $43 million or 100 percent of the cap.
Jones took advantage of the meeting to make several comparisons between KPBSD and other large districts around the state. For instance, KPBSD was the only district of eight large school districts during fiscal year 2008 to meet AYP, adequate yearly progress, a yardstick that measures whether districts meet requirements of the federally mandated No Child Left Behind Act. Individual schools also are subject to NCLB requirements, with repeated failure to meet AYP resulting in take-over by the state.
The transparency, or openness of the budget process reflects the district's commitment to be accountable to students, families and borough residents, said Liz Downing of Homer, school board vice president.
"There are a lot of misperceptions around government budgets. The misperceptions lead people to think that there is a lot of fat in the budget and that's simply not true. It's important for people to know the facts and take a good look at what the realities area," Downing said.
"Those who attended the budget meeting and those who research budget information available on the district Web site, will learn what decision-makers around the state and country already know."
Jones invited questions and comments at the meeting as well as other times. Following his presentation, Sunni Hilts of Seldovia, who represents areas of the southern Peninsula on the school board, also encouraged participation from the public.
"It's really good to talk to the administration, talk to school board members, talk to people one-on-one if you have the chance and get informed," Hilts said. "How do we do this process? We're taking it out of the public's money and (the public) should know where it goes, how it goes. They should realize that this is not something a school board decided how much money we'll spend. We're all in this together."
The relevance of participating in school district's budget process was evident to McNary and Reinert.
"Whether you have students in school or not, the value of our education system affects us all as citizens," McNary said. "These kids are the people that will fix our cars, wait on us at Safeway, become politicians, go out into the world and run the place. If we're not providing a good education for them, then they can't do a good job for us and our communities."
"If having an educated, civilized generation is not enough, then anybody who does not have a kid in school should know that if your school has a great reputation, people will want to move here," Reinert said. "That translates into a higher housing market, more taxes, all that stuff. If you're sitting in your cabin on Baycrest, you may not care about school, but if you ever want to sell (your cabin) for a profit, make sure Homer is place where people want to come."
Information on the budget process can be found on the district's Web site at www.kpbsd.k12.ak.us. To contact Jones, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call 907-714-8838. Contact information for school board members also can be found at that site.
McKibben Jackinsky can be reached at mckibben.jackinsky.@homernews.com.
Other information provided by Jones included an overview of the state's funding formula, a by-school breakdown of student enrollment for a total of 8,065 KPBSD students, and the district's staffing formula.
A 73 percent graduation rate also sets KPBSD apart, putting it and Kodiak Island Borough Schools ahead of six other large school districts, including Anchorage, Fairbanks and Mat-Su.
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