Community needs to help schools

Posted: Sunday, March 03, 2002

Over the last couple of months, the topic of funding for education has once again reared its ugly head. The Kenai Peninsula Borough School District is complaining that the state is not providing adequate or equitable funds that enable it to provide the quality of education we expect. To add fuel to the already boiling pot, the teachers' contracts are up for negotiation. They are rightfully requesting raises that are long overdue and well deserved. Yet the KPBSD is shouting wage freezes and further reductions in teaching and support staff for next year.

The last 10 years of continual budget cuts in the KPBSD are taking their toll on the whole system. So, as a self-employed parent and community member, I decided to get the facts and see what's really behind all the heated rhetoric. After several weeks of information gathering and endless hours poring over district budgets and expenses, this is what I've found: The situation is more than a little scary!

I feel like I'm in Dr. Seuss's "Horton Hears A Who!" story. You know, the little dust speck that's going to be thrown in the pot of boiling beezlenut oil, because Horton is the only one who knows they're there and is listening to their pleas for help. Well, KPBSD schools are about to end up in that pot of hot oil unless some drastic changes occur soon!

Here are some of the facts concerning the district's funding and expenses. The base student allocation for the 2001-2002 school year was $4,010 per student enrolled in the district. It may sound like a lot, but it isn't when you realize what that amount is supposed to pay for. It covers employee salaries and benefits, utilities, insurance, building maintenance, school books, supplies, etc. The amount falls far short even before you consider cost increases that are beyond district control.

In 1999, the district spent roughly $ 5.4 million on employee health care costs; this year it is up to $6.5 million. The utilities, including phone, electric, heating fuel, water and sewer, have risen $305,000. Insurance rates have soared $170,000. Increased costs in these areas have resulted in cuts elsewhere -- namely, the schools.

Since 1999, the district has lost 170 teachers. In the same time frame, it has only hired 78. That means there are 92 fewer teachers teaching 659 fewer students. This means that for every seven students the district loses, it loses one teacher. Considering the pupil-teacher ratio is currently 25:1, that math just doesn't add up. This is on the heels of House Bill 30, which mandates class sizes with a PTR of 18:1 for kindergarten through third grade; 20:1 for fourth- through sixth grade; and 25:1 for seventh through 12th grade. Of course, this doesn't apply if there isn't enough funding.

This situation is made even more difficult because a large number of the teachers who left had been in the district for years and had a lot of experience. Many teachers that the district has since hired are new and inexperienced; 56 have their teaching certificates with no further advanced credits. Only 18 of the new hires have master's degrees.

This is not meant to slight new or inexperienced teaching staff, but with low salaries and no foreseeable future for progression, professionally or financially, there is no incentive, other than love of the area, to be employed in this district. Other cuts that have been made within the schools are to support staff, such as secretaries, nurses and custodians.

These cuts impact the classrooms in a variety of ways. At the elementary level, I see teachers spending their time practicing crowd control instead of teaching. Middle and high school students don't have enough textbooks, so they have to share. Secretaries and teachers are being expected to assess and treat student illness or injury and, in many instances, administer medications because there are no longer nurses in the schools. There are basically 12.75 nurses serving the 41 schools in the district. The list goes on and on.

Yet, it doesn't stop here. While all these cuts have been made, our Legislature has commanded the schools to adopt standards-based education and perform more student assessments and exams, (including high school exit exams) in conjunction with these mandates. This is a great idea if you have the staff, supplies and resources to implement it. These are just a few of the problems, so, now, what about solutions?

No. 1 on the list is to change the funding formula. Increase and inflation-proof the student base allocation. Revamp the way the area cost differential is figured for our district. Anchorage sets the standard for the state with a rating of 1.00, the KPBSD has been rated at 1.0004. This may work for the district's "urban" schools, but not the outlying ones.

An example of the disparity here is that Nondalton, which is the same distance in air miles from Anchorage as Tyonek gets rated at 1.5666 while Tyonek receives the KPBSD rate of 1.0004. Of the 41 schools in the district, nine of them are fairly remote. With per student costs ranging from $6,144 for Voznesenka to $17,185 in Hope.

The per student costs around the rest of the district range from $4,100 to $7,400 depending on the size and location of the school and the ages of the students attending. The area cost differential should be figured on a school-by-school basis, not districtwide.

Second, make changes to the rules governing the sources of funding and how the funds are distributed. For example, have nurses be employees of public health instead of the school district.

Third, consider a flat education tax in our district. This would ensure the funds stay in the district and don't get lost in the state's general funds like a statewide tax would. Be able to make an optional deduction from your permanent fund dividend to the school or schools of your choice.

Fourth, create a state lottery that funds education. Several other states have done this with great success. There are a lot of options; we just have to be willing to at least consider them.

Remember there are 9,876 kids in this district who deserve to have a quality education. It won't happen if parents and community members don't get involved. It won't happen if all the teachers leave because they can't afford to stay.

Just like in the "Horton" story, if everyone in our community doesn't holler loudly and contribute to the cause, we will all lose. Your one little "YOP" could make all the difference in "our town's darkest hour."

Please write, phone, or e-mail your legislator with your comments and concerns. Tell them how budget cuts have impacted your schools, offer suggestions for change. Encourage everyone you know to do the same. Make a difference. "YOP" as loud as you can.

You may also send public opinion messages through the Kenai Legislative Information Office. Call 283-2030; the LIO has lots of information and is a great help.

You also can e-mail and your concerns and letters will be hand-carried to Juneau with a group of parents and KPBSD staff this month.

Kacey Cooper is a parent volunteer who has worked in several area schools. She is among parents who will travel to Juneau soon to talk with legislators about school funding. Many residents know her as the "dog lady," because she operates Wounded Bear Kennels on Kalifornsky Beach Road.

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