HOMER -- Snowballs rattled off the Homer High School library windows Monday night as the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District hosted a public hearing on the district's budget problems.
While the kids outside were just fooling around, the district's budget woes -- which boil down to an estimated $1.4 million worth of red ink for the 2002-2003 school year -- are no joke, said district Finance Director Melody Douglas.
The hearing was the fourth of six meetings seeking comment on ways to cut the budget. A leaflet passed out urged the public to contact their legislators in Juneau and plead the schools' case.
As she outlined the district's preliminary budget, Douglas' message was simple: the schools in the district are under attack. The looming cutbacks could force a number of radical changes that could include the elimination of co-curricular activities such as sports, an increase in class sizes and the closure or consolidation of schools.
The district's preliminary budget, as drafted by the district Budget Review Committee last month, also plans to cut 26 teaching positions. That plan, and an unprecedented salary freeze for all district employees, threatens to become an obstacle that could derail contract negotiations under way between the district and the employees union. In light of the dismal numbers from the Budget Review Committee, "the biggest issue the district faces right now is the (contract) negotiations," Douglas said.
"We've never had to freeze salaries before," she added. "The board and administration wishes we didn't have to now."
Since the two sides must come up with an agreement to finalize the district budget, which will be presented to the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly later this spring, the negotiations will likely go into or beyond the 11th hour.
The reasons for the budget gap, as laid out by Douglas, are various, but the overriding problem is one of declining enrollment vs. increasing costs. The district has been seeing a decrease in enrollment since 1997, the first in its history, and it projects that decline to go through at least 2008.
Douglas pointed to increased health care costs and the rising cost of utilities as examples of other squeezing factors.
The base dollar amount allocated by the state on a per-student basis cannot keep up with the district's costs, especially in light of a decline in students, Douglas said. That number -- $4,010 -- is in the district's lobbying cross hairs for the current legislative session.
The district also plans to pressure the Legislature to readjust the numbers the state uses to adjust that $4,010 figure comparatively from district to district. A percentage increase in that equation would amount to more revenue.
The 2002-2003 school year budget calls for increased spending on things ranging from academic areas such as the alternative education Connections program, to the mundane, like a fleet of new copiers and a new truck for the district warehouse.
The crowd at Homer High School, two-thirds of which was made up of district employees, received Douglas' presentation quietly, mulling over the difficult choices laid before them and reacting with questions for the most part. Suggestions for concrete ways in which the district could close it's budget gap were offered only tentatively.
There was concern raised over a proposal to consolidate schools throughout the district, including Paul Banks and West Homer Elementary schools, and Razdolna School and McNeil Canyon Elementary, as as over whether the ultimate cost of the cuts will be the level of education available in the local schools.
Douglas and her audience also discussed the practicality and savings provided by a four-day school week, a possibility the district may explore.
Eileen Clark, an English teacher at Homer High, compared the always-difficult process of belt-tightening to being asked to lop off a finger. To demonstrate how she felt the cutting might proceed this time, Clark held up a balled fist -- no fingers left.
The school district administration must present its budget to the Kenai Peninsula Board of Education no later than March 4. That meeting will be in Homer.
Sepp Jannotta is a reporter for the Homer News.
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