Schools budget in limbo

Posted: Thursday, February 08, 2001

This year, a glimmer of hope has lightened the usually grim school budget planning process.

On the one hand, the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District is looking at cutting $1.9 million from its "status quo" budget because of inflation. On the other hand, district officials are optimistic that the Legislature will increase funding for Alaska's schools next year.

"We believe there is some relief out there," said Patrick Hickey, the assistant superintendent in charge of district finances.

Hickey spoke Tuesday in Soldotna at the first of a series of community meetings to solicit public feedback on the budget.

The revenue uncertainty influenced the recommendations of the committee that produced the draft budget Monday.

Keeping teachers' jobs was identified as a top priority. The district does not want to send pink slips to employees this spring, then turn around and try to rehire them over the summer if additional funding comes through, Hickey said.

Instead, the committee targeted cuts to supplies, travel and administrative expenses, which would be easier to add back at a later date, if possible.

"We cut things with an opportunity to restore them if we get more funding," he said.

The budget committee, made up of administrators, teachers, support workers, parents and other volunteers, floated a list of ideas for potential cuts.

Hickey stressed that items listed were for the sake of discussion and not district plans. Particularly, he pointed to an item suggesting that the district could save $200,000 next year by closing Hope School, the district's smallest.

"There is no way we are going to close Hope School," he stressed. "We are not out looking to close people's schools."

The largest item on the list is a $1.5 million cut in supplies, including textbooks.

"A million and a half dollars is an unacceptable amount to cut from supplies," Hickey said.

To avoid such draconian measures, the educators are counting on changes in the statewide foundation formula, which determines state and borough aid to public schools. The formula also caps how much money schools can get per student. The amount has been the same since the 1998-99 school year.

Hickey said hints from Juneau give him cause to hope for more revenue, which would allow the district to cancel some or all of the proposed cuts. If an increase were big enough, it could even allow partial restoration of the $2.5 million cut last year.

If that were to happen, the top item on the district's wish list would be to rehire teachers cut from middle schools, at an estimated cost of $522,000.

The first bill prefiled for the current legislative session, authored by Fairbanks Republican Sen. Gary Wilken, would generate about $2.6 million more for the peninsula district. Many new lawmakers ran on the platform of increasing school funding, and the political mood seems to favor a raise after three years of flat per-student funding, Hickey said.

But how much money may be forthcoming will remain a mystery until the end of the session in May, after school dismisses for the year.

Hickey said he believes the district will get more money but doubts that the full $2.6 million Wilken suggested will make it to Kenai Peninsula schools. In the meantime, the district is planning based on current rules and circumstances.

The new school year will include rearranging teachers to cope with continuing enrollment changes. Some schools will lose teachers because of declining numbers of students over the past two years.

For example, Nikiski Middle-Senior High School will lose a half-time position, he said.

Staffing levels for the youngest grades will remain uncertain pending word from Washington, D.C., about the district's Class Size Reduction Grant. The program, which pays for additional teachers for kindergarten through grade two, had allotted funds for the Kenai Peninsula but is now under review by the new Bush administration. The district hopes to keep those teachers even if the grant changes, he said.

The 2001-02 budget projections assume about 110 more students in the district next year.

Because of increases to the assessed value of property in the borough, the state formulas continue a trend of shifting more education costs from the state to the borough taxpayers. For next year, the state would pay about $635,000 less to the district, and the borough's share would increase about $830,000. The district also expects to gain a $350,000 refund from the federal government under its E-Rate program, which reimburses schools for the costs of Internet technology infrastructure. The changes add up to $544,000 more revenue projected for the district.

On the other side of the balance sheet, the district's biggest expense increase is labor costs. Step wage increases and benefits such as health care are mandated under union contracts and go up every year. For next year, personnel costs will go up about $1.37 million. Other increases include telephone and computer technology, supplies and more funding for the growing Aurora Borealis Charter School. The projected increased costs add up to about $2.53 million.

The resulting gap is about $1.9 million.

To balance, the draft budget lists cuts of $1.5 million to supplies, $244,000 to co-curricular travel that the borough paid last year and $203,000 to technology purchases. Hickey said the district hopes those cuts never happen.

"We chose the lesser of two evils. But neither of them is acceptable," he said.

The district is looking more seriously at $57,000 of cuts. These would come from consolidating a position between purchasing and the food service, postponing purchase of computer monitors for the Connections cyber school and cutting an allowance for off-road travel to schools at Voznesenka and Razdolna because of road improvements to the Russian villages.

Hickey noted that the optimism about more state funding changed the entire mood of this year's budget process.

"I'm really pleased at the way it's going," he said.

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