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School board OKs budget

District hopes for help from Legislature to improve numbers

Posted: Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Nothing was easy for the Kenai Peninsula school board Monday night.

The board wrapped up its meeting just after midnight. During the five-hour meeting, the board reluctantly accepted a budget for the 2007-08 school year, amended and passed -- with a great deal of debate -- a calendar of board meetings for next year, approved nine other items on its consent agenda, also with great deal of sometimes contentious debate, heard a first reading of changes to the district field trip policy -- accompanied by critical public testimony -- and listened as more than 30 people weighed in on the district administration’s selection of current Sears Elementary principal John Cook to serve as administrator next year in the consolidated Sears and Mountain View building.

By a 7-1 vote, the board approved a 2007-08 general fund expenditure budget of $113,434,399, and a budget of $131,136,419 for all funds. To cover the $2.1 million difference between projected revenues and expenditures, the board authorized an allocation from the general fund balance, the money the district has been able to squirrel away over the past few years.

“This is not a balanced budget,” said board member Nels Anderson, referring to the use of the fund balance to get the numbers to break even. “We’re hoping the Legislature will come through, but if not, that’s another 25 teachers we’ll have to cut next year.”

Several members of the public came forward to testify on the budget and questioned whether there was some other area that might be cut in order to save at least a few of the 75 teaching staff cuts planned.

Board members were upset by the perception that teaching staff is the first thing cut when it comes time to balance the budget.

“That broke my heart,” said board member Sunni Hilts. “It’s the most painful thing we do.”

Anderson said more than 70 percent of the district’s budget is spent on classroom instruction -- teacher salaries and benefits -- leaving less than 30 percent for everything else, including district administration, which he said was one of the leanest in the state, support staff, books and supplies, and paying the bills.

“Nobody is even close to us in terms of what we don’t spend,” Anderson said. “... I think the perception is, there’s always fat to cut in administration. That’s just not true. None of us here are interested in anything other than keeping teachers in front of students. I’m not happy with the budget because we’re pretending it’s balanced by taking $2 million instead of laying off 25 more teachers.”

“It’s not a good budget. It’s a budget mandated by law, but it’s the best we can do right now,” Hilts said.

Board member Debbie Brown, who voted against the budget, said she was not comfortable voting in favor of the budget because it is too harsh for some of the peninsula’s smaller communities.

“I believe there is more we can do,” Brown said.

Board member Sammy Crawford reiterated the need for additional funding from the Legislature.

“We (the school board) do not have taxing power. We go down to Juneau with our hand out. They have come through, but not at the level we need,” Crawford said.

The board had a conference call with peninsula legislators during a worksession prior to Monday’s meeting during which Rep. Mike Chenault of Nikiski said lawmakers were working through possible fixes to the state retirement systems and would then take up the affects of those changes on the base student allocation and the foundation formula by which the state funds education.

“The formula is growing by $100 million each year, but almost every dollar is going to liability and retirement, so very little of that is going into classrooms,” Chenault said.

Chenault’s proposal to change the area cost differential, House Bill 72, also is being debated in the finance committee.

“I just wish we had more information to pass on, but as you know, the process down here is like mating elephants,” Chenault said.

In her comments during discussion of the budget at the board meeting, Board President Debra Mullins said she listened in at a Legislative Information Office to testimony on Chenault’s bill, and was dismayed to hear other lawmakers criticize the number of small schools in the district.

“They’re holding that against us. We have a fight ahead of us in order to get back what we’ve lost over the past 20 years. This board, and boards in the future, will have to fight just to maintain what we have,” Mullins said. “... We hope this (budget) is not what we’re going to end up with.”

Melody Douglas, the district’s chief financial officer, said she expects to bring a revised budget back to the board for its June 4 meeting, following the scheduled conclusion of the current legislative session.

The board amended and adopted a schedule of meeting for the 2007-08 school year. In the proposed calendar, two meetings, one in Homer and one in Seward, were cut from the schedule. In past years, Seward and Homer have hosted two meetings each year.

Board member Lynn Hohl, of Seward, asked the board to move two of the meetings scheduled for the central peninsula to Seward and Homer, citing the importance of the school board and the impact of its decisions in those communities.

The board adopted the amended calendar.

The board heard from several members of the public regarding proposed changes to its field trip policy, particularly changes involving out-of-state and international travel. Concerns raised included constraints that would placed on members of the community involved in school-sponsored trips, the increase in lead time needed for approval of trips, and that the involvement of the district purchasing department would limit choices for the trip organizer.

Proposed policy changes would limit trip participation to current students, district employees or adults subject to chaperone and volunteer requirements. Trips planned by teachers but open to the community that would not entail missing school would not qualify as school-sponsored trips. Approval for out-of-state travel would need to be obtained nine to 12 months prior to the trip, and approval for international travel would need to be obtained 18 to 24 months ahead of time.

Will Morrow can be reached at will.morrow@peninsulaclarion.com.



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