Education talk heard statewide

Local district budget deadline forcing decisions

Posted: Wednesday, February 18, 2004

From counselors and secretaries to cocurricular activities and supply funds, the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District Board of Education spent about seven hours Monday discussing the wide range of cuts that may be made in order to balance the 2005 district budget.

While board President Deb Germano said Monday night that the board reached no clear consensus on the options, she said she hoped district administrators gained a clearer picture from the in-depth conversations as to the direction the board would favor taking to balance the budget.

Administrators are expected to bring a balanced budget back to the board at its next meeting, March 1, and that means cutting some $5.2 million from the original financial plan. While the budget likely won't be final until after the Legislature and governor approve education funding for the coming year later this spring, the board is required by state law to send a balanced budget to the borough assembly by May 1.

That means that while the cuts may or may not hold based on the final funding picture, many still must be made in the coming weeks.

They're not cuts the board takes lightly.

"Every issue we're talking about is personal," said board member Sunni Hilts. "They all hurt. We did not look at a good result today. We all hope that in Juneau, somebody is thinking the way we're thinking, because there's no other way this can come out right."

Holding to the idea that there are no "sacred cows" in the budget, board members examined a list of 21 possible budget adjustments that, if all made, could bring the budget in line. However, both board members and administrators had varying opinions on the viability of cuts to those 21 areas.

Most troubling to both camps it seemed were cuts to personnel, though that is the one area of the budget likely to make the most difference. Nearly 80 percent of the district's budget is devoted to salaries and benefits for its 1,200 teachers and support staff workers.

On the table were district office administration and support staff workers, particularly three positions: the warehouse worker and storekeeper-clerk in the district's central warehouse and a coordinator in charge of dealing with federal grant programs for the district. Other potential cuts were proposed for counselors, school administrators, school secretaries and even teachers.

Those proposals raised concerns with members of the public at Monday night's board meeting, as well. While almost all speakers acknowledged the near crisis level budget problems in the district, many lobbied to protect the employees already in short supply.

School board members seemed to agree.

"If I were to take our whole discussion of cuts, what it comes down to is that students need adults in their lives," said board member Margaret Gilman. "We need to figure out the most efficient way to get the most number of adults in students' lives."

Also of concern for the board and for members of the public were proposed cuts to the special education budget and funding for the Quest program for talented and gifted students.

Until last year, state and federal laws mandated programs be in place to provide services to both populations. Last year, however, the requirement for gifted and talented programs was dropped, opening the door to cuts. Many board members agreed that those programs are invaluable to students, as did parents.

"(Quest) is the most outrageously wonderful program," said parent and teacher Penny Vadla. "To cut that program would be a travesty."

Fortunately, a handful of other possible changes to the budget seemed slightly less contentious. For example, one proposal cut the amount of money the district spends on Internet costs due to more competitive bids received this year by the district.

Jim White, the district's director of data processing, explained that the district puts its Internet service out to bid each year and this year received a highly competitive bid from a company other than the current service provider. He told board members he expects to trim almost $77,000 from the budget without reducing service levels.

Also proposed was a change in the district's estimation of its revenue for the 2004-05 school year. Traditionally, the district bases its budget on current-year funding so as not to count on money it is not guaranteed from the state.

However, Melody Douglas, the district's chief financial officer, said she would be relatively comfortable counting on a small increase from the Legislature. Thus, one proposal was to adjust the district's estimated revenue based on Senate Bill 1, which currently is in committee and would increase the per-student allocation by $94 next year. The adjustment would bring about $1.6 million to the district. SB 1 is one of the more conservative education funding bills currently before the Legislature.

Nonetheless, some board members were hesitant to make such a move, as it could place the district in a tough situation if that money does not come through.

"I won't support this at all," said board member Debbie Holle.

Board members will have an opportunity to take action on these items when they vote on the balanced budget at their April 5 meeting.

The board did take action on one indirect piece of the funding picture Monday night. In preparation for the possibility of cuts to the teaching staff, the board unanimously approved a plan for a reduction in force as part of its consent agenda.

Approval of the plan does not mean any definite cuts. Rather, it puts into place a mechanism and road map for the district to make staffing cuts to both no tenured and tenured teachers should the need arise. The district is required by law to notify tenured teachers of possible cuts by March 16 and to have a plan in place for that notification in advance.

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