School funding inequity must stop


Posted: Friday, February 17, 2006

For about the last decade, Kenai Peninsula Borough residents have heard variations of the same tune: The school district is hurting financially.

In fact, residents may have heard the refrain so much that they turn a deaf ear every time it starts up again. After all, schools still are open and, by all accounts and appearances, students are getting a fine education.

Nevertheless, residents need to pay attention because the school district may very well be reaching its breaking point.

A little history puts into perspective how dire the district’s financial straits may be. Cuts have resulted in about 150 fewer positions over the last five years. Those cuts have hit the district at every level — teachers, administrators and support staff. Jobs have been combined to include regional administrators, regional counselors and regional teachers. Secretaries perform nursing duties. Principals teach. Teachers roam from school to school.

Still, the district has the distinction of being the highest performing large district in the state. In other words, district employees are efficiency experts. They are miles ahead of their counterparts in other districts when it comes to doing more with less.

Which means policy-makers in Juneau may not understand just how troubled and troubling the situation is.

And it gets bleaker. The only place left for the kind of cuts made necessary by the shortage of funds is in the classroom — in other words, teachers. All the hard work the district has done to keep the pupil-teacher ratio low is about to be undone. If something doesn’t change, the district may be forced to cut 100 teachers next year — 22 because of projected declining enrollment and 78 because of insufficient operating funds. That’s out of a current teaching staff of approximately 620. In Homer terms, that’s three teachers at Homer High School, one and a half teachers at Homer Middle and West Homer Elementary schools, and two teachers at Paul Banks Elementary School. The three teachers at the high school represent a loss of 15 offerings at the school.

There are several reasons for the bleak outlook, including the borough’s finances. The borough has proudly funded the school district to the maximum allowed by law as long as anyone can remember; this year it has said it cannot do it. That’s a loss of about $1.8 million to the district.

Declining enrollment and much higher fuel, insurance and other costs also have not helped.

But the primary reason the district’s finances are in such poor shape is because of a fundamental flaw in the formula on which the state bases funding to school districts. The formula includes a factor called the “area cost differential,” which says it costs approximately the same amount of money to operate a school in the Kenai Peninsula Borough as it does to operate a school in Anchorage.

Common sense and numerous studies, the first done in 1984 and the most recent completed last year by the University of Alaska’s Institute of Social and Economic Research, say it just isn’t so. If the Kenai Peninsula school district were being equitably treated it would have received an additional $10.2 million from the state last year, according to the ISER study.

It boils down to this: Kenai Peninsula students are being treated like second-class citizens, and it’s time for the inequity to stop.

Residents can help by writing legislators in other parts of the state (the peninsula delegation has been fighting for change) and asking them what they would do if the inequity was in their own district. Legislators need to be asked: Why are Kenai Peninsula kids worth less than students in other parts of the state? Legislators also need to know how residents have stepped up to the plate by supporting the district not only by funding to the maximum allowed by law, but by picking up the slack so programs wouldn’t go by the wayside. It also wouldn’t hurt for peninsula residents to tell their friends in other parts of the state about the inequities occurring here and enlist their support to get the funding formula changed.

There are other things that can and should be done, as well. The school district must come up with a balanced budget in March— months before it knows what kind of funding it will receive from the state and the borough.

That needs to change. The state needs to begin forward funding school districts so they know what kind of financial support they have before they write their budgets.

In addition, residents need to start thinking if there might be better ways to do things than the status quo. For example, there seems to be the notion that “smaller is better” when it comes to school size. That notion, however, contradicts research that shows the optimum size for elementary schools is 350-500 students and the optimum size for high schools is 600-900 students.

If more programs could be offered and class sizes could be smaller with fewer, but bigger, schools, wouldn’t that benefit students more than holding a hard line not to close any schools?

Finally, residents need to let the school district know what their priorities are concerning education. It’s easy to do. The district has posted a budget survey on its Web site at School officials are asking for help; they need to receive it.

As the issue of school funding is debated, it should not be forgotten that Alaska has $33.2 billion in savings and is looking at a $1.2 billion budget surplus this year because of high oil prices. A state with that kind of money should do right by all its children. This is the year to make right a wrong that’s been done to peninsula students for far too many years.

— The Homer News

Feb. 16

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