Everyone wants better education for Kenai Peninsula students. But legislators and borough officials differ about how to accomplish that goal in times of tight budgets.
Recent events have sent the borough assembly, school board and peninsula's lawmakers in Juneau scrambling to mend fences.
"We just had a little row over how we are explaining to people where the (school funding) money went," said Sen. John Torgerson, R-Kasilof.
Lawmakers vented their frustrations in an opinion piece published in the Clarion March 8 that criticized the way the Kenai Peninsula Borough and its school district have spent state education funds. Their message raised hackles at the Borough Building in Soldotna.
"We have had a great relationship in the past with our legislators. This kind of came out of left field," said Bill Popp, president of the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly.
In the first editorial, the peninsula legislative delegation said the last time the state increased education funding, much of the money paid for a tax cut, and that proposed new increases this year would be spent on higher busing costs rather than classrooms.
Torgerson, Rep. Gary Davis, R-Soldotna, Rep. Gail Phillips, R-Homer, and Rep. Hal Smalley, D-Kenai, signed the piece.
Borough Mayor Dale Bagley and Popp wrote a response opinion piece published March 12. They countered that the borough increased funding for schools and never used state school money to pay for tax cuts.
"We needed to correct what we believed to be misrepresentations," Popp said. "Our big concern was the perception that we lowered property taxes at the expense of education. That is not true."
All parties agree that money is tight and communications among the elected bodies could be better.
Torgerson said people have been calling his office with what he called "mistruths," accusing the Legislature of cutting education.
"Don't tell people I'm not doing my job in funding education," he said. "That is totally not true. I'm very proud of my education record."
School funding is hard to explain, all the parties agreed.
Even deciding whether spending is going up or down is subject to different interpretations. In the recent past, the Legislature has claimed increased school spending based on total dollars allocated, while educators have claimed decreases based on inflation eroding investment per student. Many of the "cuts" now under way are due to declining enrollment.
This year, a new contract for school busing provoked legislators' ire.
Districts requested bids for student transportation. The only bidder was Laidlaw. The prices offered were up 25 to 50 percent from previous years.
The state pays for all busing. The districts negotiated the contracts, the state Department of Education and Early Development approved them, and the bill went to the Legislature.
The peninsula district's bus bill was up by 25 percent, totaling about $750,000 more. Statewide, the extra tab added up to $7 million.
Torgerson said Friday that he intends to force districts to renegotiate for a cheaper rate and that legislation to curb bus costs is in the works. Educators were "irresponsible," he said, handing the cost increase to legislators without consultation or warning.
"What is the justification for sending me a bill for $7 million when we don't have any money?" he asked.
Educators said they had scant wiggle room on the costs, because busing is highly regulated and Laidlaw has a monopoly.
Debra Mullins, a longtime member of the school board, visited Juneau three weeks ago with the Alaska Association of School Boards.
"We talked about the bus contract," she said. "It was my understanding we had the best deal negotiated."
Smalley, a former teacher, said he sees both sides.
"(The new bus contract) was kind of a shock," he said. "But sometimes when you privatize, it costs more -- because they take a profit."
The other main point of contention is from the past -- $1.2 million "outside the cap" the borough assembly gave the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District for the 1997-98 school year, but not in subsequent years.
Laws forbid the borough to put money into schools above a calculated "cap" amount, but certain nonclassroom items, such as sports, can be funded by other accounts, "outside the cap."
In 1998, the Legislature passed a law, Senate Bill 36, that Torgerson sponsored. The bill, praised highly by peninsula educators, increased the funding formula per student and gave the district an estimated $2.4 million raise for 1998-99.
Afterward, the assembly did not renew the appropriation, stating in ordinance that SB36 made it unnecessary. Then the assembly approved a tax cut of a similar amount.
The assembly and school board remain reluctant to make the funding outside the cap a standard procedure.
"That is not something we want to do consistently," Popp said.
Smalley said the borough assembly had been "gracious" in providing such funds, and funding outside the cap is useful as a creative, stop-gap measure. He stressed that allocating such funds is strictly a local decision, and legislators are neutral on such matters. But as a peninsula resident, he said, he approves of that use of his taxes.
"It was kind of like a relief valve for them," he said. "To me, it is money well spent."
Mullen said she was surprised the legislators questioned the borough's 1998 decision.
"We explained to them that that was funding outside the cap. I guess they didn't understand or were misinformed on that," she said.
Torgerson said he wants more support from peninsula educators for statewide funding reforms he is promoting, such as organizing rural areas to contribute to Bush schools and dedicating a larger percentage of school funding directly to classroom instruction.
Having to spend scarce dollars on items like higher bus costs bugs him.
"I want more dollars in the classroom," he said. "Nothing gets into the classes. I think that is terrible."
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