Voters to have say on activities

Posted: Wednesday, February 25, 2004

In the next month, Kenai Peninsula Borough voters will be asked: Do you approve of the exercise of powers necessary for the Kenai Peninsula Borough to directly fund cocurricular activities for the school district in addition to operating funds currently authorized by law?

Proposition 1, an advisory question approved by the borough assembly in January, is designed to gauge support for funding school activities outside the cap a limit on the money municipalities legally can contribute to school budgets.

Ballots for the special election will be mailed to registered voters during the first week in March and are due back by March 30. In order to vote in the election, voters must be registered before Saturday.

The ballot question continues with some numbers. For example, the amount of funding is not anticipated to exceed 0.5 mills in additional tax levies ($50 for a $100,000 home), which would raise $2,128,928 per year based on current taxable property in the borough.

"Read the proposition carefully," said Joe Arness, a former school board member and part of the school district's cocurricular activities task force that recommended the measure.

"You cannot, by ballot, levy a tax or appropriate money. The numbers are there just to give voters a scale of the numbers involved."

Currently, the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District contributes roughly $1.2 million to fund activities, though there are other items in the budget, such as the $80,000 to $100,000 a year paid out to substitute teachers for coaches who miss class to travel with their teams, that can boost that number to $1.3 million.

As it is, the district's contribution covers about a third of the cost it takes to keep activities going, Arness said.

The ballot also contains a brief definition of cocurricular activities for voters to consider: Cocurricular activities include educational, cultural and recreational activities that are sponsored by the school district and are not part of, but supplemental to, curricular courses.

In other words, cocurricular activities are meant to enhance the classroom experience.

While much of the district's cocurricular funding goes toward high school athletics, cocurricular activities run the gamut from high school drama and music to elementary school field trips and art projects. More than 70 percent of the district's students participate in activities, and many of the 270 activities that receive district funding are not sports.

"It's a huge list. It hits everybody," said borough assembly member Paul Fischer of Kasilof, who also sat on the school district's cocurricular activities task force.

The activities task force, which convened last fall, was charged with finding another funding mechanism to pay for activities, an idea that has floated around for several years.

"That conversation has been going on for several years, but it's never been focused," Arness said. "It's been a general conversation about whether we could fund activities separately."

The task force, Arness said, was looking for a legal way to fund activities and came up with a few options:

Funding by the borough outside the cap, a limit on the amount municipal governments can contribute to school budgets.

The borough currently funds schools up to the legal limit;

Convincing the Legislature to provide more money for education;

Outsourcing sports funding, with the district providing a framework in which outside groups would run sports, much like baseball and softball programs are being run in Homer and Seward; or

Establishing an activities fund that relied on private donations.

Arness said the reason the task force recommended going to the borough for money was because of its stability.

"The thing you have to have with activities programs is stability. You have to know the basic structure is in place," Arness said. "That's the reason why private mechanisms didn't seem to be a good way to go."

Going to the borough for money also has its hurdles; most importantly, the legality of funding cocurricular activities outside of the cap.

Arness said to his knowledge, no other school district has funded activities in this manner. Juneau pays for activities separately, but as a home-rule city, it has the power to do so.

The Kenai Peninsula Borough is a second-class borough, and while the assembly has powers to fund "school purposes," the assembly could "get into a little bit of murky water" by simply appropriating the money, Arness said.

So, a big part of what voters are being asked in Proposition 1 is whether they think activities are educational or simply recreational.

Fischer said the task force recommendation forwarded to the school board would have asked the borough to fund activities for one year and see how it works before putting the issue to a vote.

Fischer said he was caught off-guard and a little put off when the school board initially asked the assembly for two years of funding, but the assembly went the other way, calling for a special election before appropriating any funds.

Should voters accept the proposition, the assembly would then decide how much money should be appropriated to fund cocurricular activities.

"This assembly, throughout history, has a record of supporting education," Fischer said. "The people have been pretty supportive of education, too."

Fischer said that with the borough's $20-million surplus, it might be possible to appropriate the funds without a mill rate increase.

If the voters reject the proposition, Fischer said it would be left to the assembly to interpret the reason for the "No" vote whether people are opposed to a tax increase, to the idea of the borough paying for activities, or to activities altogether.

The assembly still could take action on the matter depending upon its interpretation of the results.

School board member Dr. Nels Anderson said at an assembly meeting last month that he doubted the school board would be able to vote to return cocurricular activities to the budget should the proposition fail, considering the financial crisis the district faces.

"That's the million-dollar question," said district assistant superintendent Sam Stewart of possibly losing activities funding altogether. "If the proposition doesn't pass, what will the board do? Will they completely make the cut? If there's not any more funding from the state, I don't think they can make any other decision.

"Holy cow, I just don't want to face that question."

Even a "Yes" vote doesn't return activities funding to levels of 20 years ago, when there was plenty of money to go around.

The assembly could choose to keep the status quo or it could choose to fund up to .5 mills, about $2.1 million, in which case, the district might be able to restore some funding for things like travel or field trips. Student participation fees would not disappear, though they could be reduced. Cocurricular activities still would rely on community support to continue.

Any money the assembly does appropriate would allow the school district to avoid some cuts to other areas of its operating budget.

"The borough still decides how much to give us," Stewart said. "If they give us the entire $2.1 million, we might be able to reinstitute some things. There's a myriad of possibilities, it just depends on how much the borough decides to fund us."

Ballot Proposition No. 1

School District Cocurricular Activities Funding

Do you approve of the exercise of powers necessary for the Kenai Peninsula Borough to directly fund cocurricular activities for the school district in addition to operating funds currently authorized by law? It is anticipated that the amount of funding will not exceed 0.5 mills in additional tax levies for a total amount of $2,128,928 per year based upon the current taxable property in the Kenai Peninsula Borough. Funds appropriated to the school district would be placed in a special revenue fund and administered by the school district superintendent. Cocurricular activities include educational, cultural, and recreational activities that are sponsored by the school district and are not part of, but supplemental to, curricular courses.

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