School board: State should be sued for defraud

Posted: Thursday, April 07, 2005

Frustration with the budget was apparent at the Kenai Peninsula Borough School Board meeting, as the topic drifted to inadequate state funding.

Discussion arose following the board's approval of next year's budget. With cautious optimism, the district hopes to get needed state funding for the next school year. Chief Financial Officer Melody Douglas said the 2006 budget was "by no means final," as the district waits to see what the final base student allocation will be, pending action by the Legislature.

Prior to the meeting, the board held a teleconference with Sens. Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, Con Bunde, R-Anchorage, and Tom Wagoner, R-Kenai, and raised the issue of a recent Institute of Social and Economic Research (ISER) study that shows the relative cost differentials of operating school districts in the state.

The study shows the peninsula, among others, is underfunded. The message the board received was that the findings of the study were being buried. This, paired with the continuing cancellations of teleconferences on the topic, have demonstrated the abandonment of fixing the problem, they said.

School board member Marty Anderson said the Legislature lacks neither the understanding nor sympathy to how the peninsula school district is repeatedly underfunded. He said it only lacks action to do something about it.

"The area cost differential study has shown four times in 20 years that we are always asked to do more with less. It's disturbing," he said. "I have extreme frustration because we're just asking that families here have the same opportunities available anywhere else."

Board President Sammy Crawford said the only action she could recommend is written testimony to those who represent the area in state government. However, board member Dr. Nels Anderson had another suggestion.

"The only way the state of Alaska will do anything is if someone goes to court," he said. "Maybe we should ask an attorney to represent students for not getting a fair and equitable education."

Board member Sunni Hilts agreed.

"A courtroom may be the only place we get our funding. I think the kids have a right to it, but legislation will not acknowledge we are being defrauded. I say defrauded because they are knowingly underfunding us," Hilts said.

Superintendent Donna Peterson spoke about the board consensus for the request of legal services.

"Over the years, this has been a topic of discussion, and our preliminary review shows that most of the lawsuits around the country have to do with adequacy while ours would deal with equity. It's a long-term investment, and we have to be careful spending public dollars with an unsure outcome," Peterson said.

"There have been equity issues, and we're out of options, but we have never used lack of funding as an excuse, and we've been the best stewards of the dollars we have received," she said.

The board will discuss the matter at its next meeting.

In other business, Glen Szymoniak, principal of Homer Middle School, made an appearance at the meeting to witness the board approve his appointment to the assistant superintendent position, replacing Guy Fisher. What he did not expect to see was a board member attempt to refute the purpose of the position and vote against the appointment approval.

Board member Debbie Brown vocalized how she saw this appointment as an opportunity to slim-down central office staff. She said her position reflected the voice of her constituency.

"We don't have to fit to the administration mold. I saw this as an opportunity to reduce staff," Brown said.

Board member Margaret Gilman said the central office already has been cut down enough.

"I'm proud to say, and a little disheartened, that we're the cheapest district in the state. We ask so much from them, and I really don't think they have enough help. While I appreciate the concern, we certainly can't give them any less," Gilman said. "We ask (administrators) to do the work of the divine, and we would be selling ourselves short because we have an excellent candidate."

Anderson added to Gilman's comments

"We are more than 50 percent cheaper than anywhere else. It's by far the most efficient central office in the state," he said.

Brown suggested hiring more teachers instead of approving Szymoniak's employment. However, the board approved the appointment, as well as Sandra Miller as the Title I coordinator, a new position added due to No Child Left Behind requirements. John O'Brien was approved as principal of Nikiski Middle-Senior High School, and John Cook was named principal of Sears Elementary.

The next meeting is at 7 p.m. April 18 at the Kenai Peninsula Borough Building in Soldotna.

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