Learning to make do with less

Enrollment drop hurting school district finances

Posted: Friday, February 17, 2006

A 2 percent drop in enrollment is seen as an indicator of the state of the economy by Kenai Peninsula Borough School District administrators.

  Students at Tustumena Elementary School dissect a salmon in a fourth-grade class at Tustumena Elementary School earlier this school year. School funding is tied to enrollment figures. Photo by M. Scott Moon

“When we interview parents who take their kids out of school — besides family matters — we find it’s due to a lack of permanency in their jobs,” said Donna Peterson, superintendent.

School district Finance Director Melody Douglas said the number of teachers is then adjusted accordingly, but some costs cannot be as proportionately altered.

Just as it takes the same amount of electricity to light a school building for one student as it does for 100, and it takes the same amount of fuel oil to heat a full building as one partly filled, so does the need for administrators remain fixed.

“You need to have a principal at the school regardless of enrollment size,” Douglas said.

The annual 2 percent decline in enrollment the district has been experiencing equates to needing 25 fewer teachers, and while some of the reduction can be taken care of through attrition, some cannot.

The drop in enrollment also comes at a time when costs to operate the schools are on the rise.

For the 2006 fiscal year, Douglas said she has had to revise utility costs upward, mostly due to rising energy costs.

The revised costs for 2006 include an increase in what it costs to remove the schools’ garbage by 17 percent; water and sewer are up 18 percent; electricity is up 15 percent from $2.45 million to $2.8 million; natural gas increased by 20 percent to $550,000; and fuel oil went up 35 percent from $667,000 to $900,000.

For fiscal year 2007, Douglas said she increased the natural gas cost another 20 percent.

“I hope it’s enough,” she said.

Facing similar issues as Alaska municipalities, the school district is incrementally increasing its budget amounts for public employee and teacher retirement accounts by 5 percent.

Douglas also has had to increase the amount set aside for insurance for the school district.

Factored into the 45 percent increase are effects of the hurricanes in the country’s Gulf Region, a reappraisal of the district’s school buildings and the fact that a leveling of the district’s insurance fund balance is scheduled to end during fiscal year 2006, according to Douglas.

Peterson said the school district has been “short-funded” for more than 20 years, and has done “an award-winning job in spite of that.”

She said districtwide, the Kenai Peninsula has small schools, which are less efficient to run than larger schools.

“We have an infrastructure for 13,000 and we have (an enrollment of) 9,500,” Peterson said.

If school boundaries were changed, the district could consolidate more schools, such as Nikiski and North Star elementary schools were combined a year ago.

“That was very successful,” said Peterson, adding that the consolidation brought with it many “vibrant programs” for students.

“Our outlook is one of dealing with the realities in the community,” Peterson said.

“As Agrium goes forward with its coal (gasification) project, we want the families to locate here.

“We can market a world-class education system because of our people,” she said.

 

Students at Tustumena Elementary School dissect a salmon in a fourth-grade class at Tustumena Elementary School earlier this school year. School funding is tied to enrollment figures.

Photo by M. Scott Moon



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