Schools' woes go to Capitol

Concerned citizens to lobby legislators

Posted: Sunday, February 24, 2002

Under law, only the Alaska Legislature can give the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District the additional money its teachers, support staff and administrators say they need to give students a quality education.

This weekend, three members of the school board are in Juneau meeting with lawmakers to make the case for more school funding. On March 6 and 7, a second delegation, including parents and students, will head for the Capitol.

Lobbying trips are nothing new. But what is new this time is the community involvement and the level of urgency.

"I would like to make the Legislature realize how inequitable and skewed the funding formula is for this district," said Kacey Cooper, one of the parents signed up for the March trip.

Cooper has two children at Tustumena Elementary School, where she volunteers in classrooms. She says the schools' plight has her worried.

"I've been seeing the changes the past five years," she said.

She has seen class sizes getting bigger and teachers harder pressed to get their basic work done. She has heard about the budget gap and the tense contract talks between employees and the district.

"It just made me realize we have to do something different," she said. "What really got me going was the awareness finally of how far off the salaries are, and it's getting worse."

Cooper said learning about the school district's financial health has been daunting. Although administrators have been helpful, the subject is huge and complicated.

But some things she has learned have shocked her. For example, although the state mandates $4,010 as the "basic need" for educating a school child, the district has to pay far more than that, especially in its many small, remote schools.

Cooper looked at the district's accounts and found that the most expensive site, Hope, costs the district $17,185 per student.

The district has 42 schools in 21 communities. Fourteen have fewer than 100 students; four are "across the water," and another seven, although more or less on the road system, are in isolated, remote areas.

"They cost an arm and a leg, but they get funded the same as an urban area," she said.

"I don't think that most people I talk to understand the depth of the problem. ... They don't have a good grasp of how the funding is done. It is confusing," she said. "That's my whole goal: to get the public to have enough knowledge to change it."

That public involvement is key, said Todd Syverson, the district's assistant superintendent who is organizing and leading the March trip.

Educators frequently go to Juneau to plead their case. For example, the trip the school board members are now on is a twice-yearly event organized by the Association of Alaska School Boards. Deborah Germano, Al Poindexter and Margaret Gilman left Friday and will return Tuesday evening.

The trip is an opportunity for school board members to network with educators and lawmakers from around the state and to receive specialized training and briefings about education legislation.

The trio will pitch a proposal Superintendent Donna Peterson called "leave no district behind." The proposal suggests an education funding clause to allow a safety net for districts, such as the Kenai Peninsula, that are particularly stricken with funding shortfalls.

The state already puts big bucks into education. For the current fiscal year, about a third of the state budget is going toward education, including public schools, the University of Alaska and early childhood education programs.

It adds up to about $1.5 billion, more than spending on the departments of Administration, Community and Economic Development, Corrections, Environmental Conservation, Fish and Game, Labor and Workforce Development, Law, Military and Veterans Affairs, Natural Resources, Revenue, Public Safety, the governor's office, the Legislature and the court system combined, according to a report provided by Rep. Ken Lancaster, R-Soldotna.

Lawmakers have expressed concerns about spending on non-classroom items, standards, accountability and small, inefficient rural districts. When approached for more school dollars, some are skeptical and ask to hear from constituents who don't draw a district paycheck.

That is why the Kenai Peninsula district is turning to others in the community for help this year, asking for letters and e-mails to legislators in addition to volunteers to go to Juneau. The March delegation will include at least 18 people. In addition to Syverson, the group will include borough assembly member Pete Sprague, school board member Joe Arness, Kenai Peninsula Education Association President Hans Bilben and Kenai Peninsula Education Support Association President Karen Mahurin.

Most of the delegates this time are not district employees. The rest of the group consists of high school students, parents and community representatives. The district previously had budgeted for Syverson to make one trip to Juneau, so it will pay for his ticket. The unions will pay for Bilben and Mahurin. The Kenai Peninsula Borough is donating the airfare for the non-employees to go.

Syverson said district personnel will explain the peninsula schools' funding realities to the parents, students and community representatives, then step aside and let them do the talking in Juneau. The plan is to divide the delegation into subgroups, which will visit different lawmakers. In addition to meeting with all the representatives and senators from the peninsula, they will visit other key lawmakers, such as committee chairs and others who have worked on education legislation.

"I think it is important to come down with some solutions, not just asking for more money," Syverson said.

Cooper agreed.

She suggested new state taxes with the revenues earmarked for education and transferring responsibility for school nurses from districts to the state public health system as two potential starting points.

"I am not an educator; I am not in this for the money," she said. "I am just a concerned parent who wants her kids to get a good education."



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