Where does district money go?

Demands fuel schools' costs

Posted: Sunday, March 03, 2002

It is difficult to think of $90 million as too small an amount of money. But the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District is having a hard time stretching that amount to cover its nearly 10,000 students, about 1,200 employees and 42 schools, including the "Connec-tions" program.

"For 10-plus years we have made all the possible cuts: There is simply nothing else to cut, and yet, we've got to find a way to deliver a balanced budget, and that is going to mean cutting almost $1.5 million more," Superintendent Donna Peterson told employees in a January memorandum.

"When I started this job three years ago, I knew we were 'near the wall' financially. Well, my friends, we have hit the wall and it is solid stone."

Monday the administration will present its preliminary budget to the school board when it meets in Homer. To cover the $1.5 million, it will propose deleting funds for the new social studies and health curricula, reducing computer and supply purchases, changing the teacher specialist program and cutting the equivalent of 6.6 positions from the pool of unallocated teaching positions usually set aside at the beginning of each school year. That would be on top of the proposed salary freeze and cutback of 26 teaching positions.

That whittles the projected 2002-2003 total budget for the district down to a mere $89.6 million at this point.

Some people have a hard time figuring out where all that money goes and why the district is asking for more. They want to know why home and private schools can teach children more cheaply.

The short answer is that schools offer a lot of services beyond a teacher with a book in one hand and a piece of chalk in the other.

Most of the district's operating budget, 78 percent, goes straight into personnel costs. The school district is the peninsula's largest employer, with 1,365 employees. The majority of the payroll goes to teachers as salaries and benefits.

But in addition to teachers, the public schools provide nurses, custodians, guidance counselors, lunch programs, after-school activities and psychiatrists. More employees operate public spaces such as pools, theaters, commons, libraries and gymnasiums. In schools, principals and sometimes assistant principals handle crisis management, discipline, personnel, scheduling, reporting and interfacing with the public. By law, the district staff must provide standardized testing, up-to-date curriculum, detailed records and specialists for gifted, bilingual, handicapped, medically fragile or disturbed students. Backing all them up are trainers, accountants and a corps of secretaries. When any of these people are sick, the district must pay for substitutes to fill their ranks.

This army of employees receives benefits including health coverage, life insurance and retirement. The district expects to pay about $13 million in employee benefits during the 2002-2003 school year.

The district has to pay some people beyond its usual staff as well. It pays about $200,000 cumulatively for auditors, lawyers, technicians and consultants. It has other contracts for functions such as copier machine maintenance.

The district pays for printing reports, putting gas in its vehicles and fixing malfunctioning equipment. It is budgeting $115,000 for garbage pickup and $67,000 for postage (up $1,000 from last year because of the postal rate increase on the horizon).

And all these functions involve buildings.

The district owns no buildings. All schools are property of the Kenai Peninsula Borough. The borough coordinates with the district to assist in maintenance and upkeep within the limits set by law. But the district must bear some of the burden, to the tune of about $4.9 million next year.

Most of the district's buildings were erected during the high-growth years of the '60s, '70s and early '80s. The oldest date back as far as the 1930s, although they have been remodeled and added to in the intervening years. Many of the structures are nearing the end of their functional life spans, and maintenance costs are likely to rise.

The district probably will pay more than $2 million for electricity and more than $900,000 for heating fuel. Other components of the budget are set by grants, and the district has little control over how that money is spent. Those "special revenue funds" include $4.5 million for busing and $2.4 million for food service subsidies.

The projected operating budget for next year is about $74 million, plus $15.5 million in the special funds. Numbers on both the revenue and expenditure side will change, said Melody Douglas, the district's chief financial officer.

The district is hoping for a $2 million one-time interest payment windfall from the borough, a Learning Opportunity Grant to pay for classroom teachers and a hike in the base rate of state funding to provide more security in future years.

"But the nature of the time line is such that we have to move ahead," she said. "One should not count (unhatched) chickens."

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