Voters narrowly reject funding

Posted: Sunday, April 04, 2004

A proposition to provide borough funding for cocurricular school activities narrowly failed, officials announced Friday. What that means to the future of the student programs remains to be seen, though.

The proposition asked voters if they supported the borough spending up to .5 mills or about $2.1 million to fund student activities such as sports, drama and after-school academic clubs "outside the cap," or above the amount municipalities are allowed to contribute to school operating budgets.

Nearly 26 percent of those registered in the borough 9,489 voters participated in the mail-in special election, with 50.4 percent voting against the proposition and 49.6 percent in favor of it. The proposition lost by 76 votes.

"I don't know that there's any clear message," Superintendent Donna Peterson said Friday. "There were so many factors in that whole discussion."

For example, some residents voted "no," because they opposed the possible tax increase for property owners. Others felt the borough funding would let the state off the hook with its responsibility to fund education. Still others said cocurricular activities are less important than traditional educational subjects such as reading, writing and math. And yet others claimed the school district's budget is large enough and simply needs better management.

Peterson said she was at least pleased with the voter turnout for the election.

"We're celebrating that so many people responded," she said.

Ultimately, she said the vote means more conversations in the district and borough about the future of cocurricular programs.

The school district currently spends about $1.3 million a year for cocurricular activities, and that accounts for only about one-third of the total operating cost of the programs. With a $6.7 million deficit for the coming academic year, that money is not in the proposed balanced budget scheduled to go before the school board Monday night.

Peterson said the vote results likely will not change the omission.

The budget document already is published, so the administration's recommendations for the budget will not change before Monday, she said.

However, she added, she's certain cocurricular activities will be a source of much discussion, both at the board meeting and throughout the coming weeks.

That's because the election was an advisory vote, and even with the measure failing, it doesn't preclude the borough assembly from allocating funds for activities.

However, while assembly President Pete Sprague said borough funding remains a possibility, it's one he doubts he could support.

"Even if it was close, (voters) still said 'no,'" he said. "It was a yes or no vote, not a maybe."

Sprague said he, too, was impressed with the voter turnout, but not surprised by the close results.

"I thought it was going to be an uphill battle, and obviously it was," he said. "It is interesting that it was so close.

"But I think now the focus and any displeasure needs to be directed toward Juneau. The borough has stepped up to the plate funding the school district at the cap. Now Juneau needs to step up to the plate."

Joe Arness, a former school board member who sat on the task force that came up with the funding mechanism, agreed that the idea probably will come to a standstill due to the vote.

"The assembly still can (appropriate the money), but realistically, I wouldn't expect them to.

"I'm real discouraged," he said. "I thought we'd put together a real credible proposal, but obviously the community didn't think so."

He said he thinks the Legislature's discussions of increases to the education funding formula currently being passed back and forth between the House and Senate may fix the district's financial shortfall for the short term and save cocurricular programs for now.

"I guess we'll have to continue along with the way things have been and hope the state continues to provide funding," he said.

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