State must treat peninsula fairly

Posted: Friday, March 11, 2005

As legislators consider school funding, they should be prepared to tell Kenai Peninsula residents why their students are valued at less than students in other parts of the state. For years, study after study has told legislators that very thing, but legislators have turned a deaf ear to the message.

They need to listen. Peninsula residents can hope that the "School District Cost Study Update" recently completed by the University of Alaska's Institute of Social and Economic Research will cause legislators to notice that the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District is grossly underfunded.

ISER's report shows the factor used to determine education funding for the district should increase from 1.004 to 1.717. If the area cost differentials were fully funded, that would mean an additional $10.2 million for the district.

Since legislators have managed to ignore previous studies, peninsula residents should tell them — again — what a unique district this is and what being shortchanged has meant to education here. Good examples came from this week's school board meeting in Homer.

How many teachers and administrators have a two-mile trek into their teaching assignment and back each day? Teachers at Kachemak Selo School do. It adds up to about a three-hour commute each and every day — through rain, sleet, snow and dark of winter, not to mention mud, high tides and flooding. That's commitment.

While everyone knows secretaries at every organization are the glue that holds things together and the gas that makes things run, how many of them must do the jobs of several others because of budget cuts? Secretaries all over the district are performing nursing duties, filling in for principals (because principals may be teaching or have more than one school to cover) and trying to keep their finger in the dike so others can do their jobs.

While the district currently is funded as if it were an urban district, does the following sound like any other urban district in the state? The KPBSD covers 25,600 square miles and contains 44 schools, including four that can be reached only by air or water and three others not on state-maintained roads. Sixteen of those 44 schools have less than 100 students and 18 are heated with high-cost fuel oil or propane. Buses in the district travel approximately 7,500 miles every day.

Legislators may try to tell peninsula residents there's not enough money to give the district what its students deserve. Peninsula residents should be prepared to call their bluff. A state with $30.6 billion in savings is not poor. It can afford to treat peninsula students better — and should.

State legislators also cannot tell the borough to contribute more to its schools. Only four of the 34 school districts in the state receive the maximum amount allowed from local governments — the KPBSD is one of them.

The borough is contributing all it can — and then some. Parent volunteers, for example, are the only reason some students in the district have access to their school libraries. In other cases, volunteers have stepped forward to ensure students have music and art education.

Every employee in the district — from the central office on down — has become an efficiency expert. They all deserve an "A+" for maintaining and more. For their hard work, they're being penalized — and that means the students in the district are getting less than they deserve.

Enough is enough.

Education funding currently is on a fast track in the Legislature. Legislators need to hear peninsula residents are tired of their students being treated like second-class citizens. Legislators need to hear specific examples of how that's happening.

This is not about more money. It's about getting a fair share of the state dollars that go to education. If all legislators were sending their children to schools that were being hit year after year with the kind of cuts that the KPBSD has experienced in recent years, it's a pretty safe bet the situation would change.

If legislators don't get the message this session, it may well be time for the district to seek relief through court action.

If you're concerned about the way the state funds peninsula schools, now is the time to let legislators know. Peninsula students deserve better than they're getting — and it's not the fault of the district, the borough or residents who show time and time again that they support students, schools and quality education.

It's past time for the state to step up to the plate.

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