Schools fight misconceptions

Posted: Monday, April 08, 2002

Listening to folks on the radio talk shows, chatting with friends over coffee or even voicing opinions at school board meetings, it is obvious many people have misconceptions about public schools on the Kenai Peninsula.

Following are answers to some basic, but complex, questions about the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District:

Why are people worried about the schools here?

The amount of money per student, corrected for inflation, has been declining almost every year since the late 1980s. The district has cut expenses, staff and programs for more than a decade and, if current trends continue, must cut more in future years. Education and employee morale are suffering, and now educators worry they can no longer shield students from the effects.

Who is in charge of the district? The elected, seven-member Board of Education runs the district through Superintendent Donna Peterson and other employees. Some responsibilities, by law or by contract, are beyond the board's control.

What are the limits on the board's authority? Federal and state laws set extensive requirements and limits on public education. These mandate things such as special education services, vaccination requirements, teacher certification and general curriculum standards. The board also is bound by terms of district employee contracts, which determine what the district must pay educators and procedures for terminating employees.

What can the school board do? It serves as a liaison between the public and the district, hires and fires superintendents, sets policies, sets the budget, oversees administrative actions and represents the district to others such as the Legislature and the state Department of Education and Early Development.

Who pays for the district? The funding for the district comes from the state of Alaska, the Kenai Peninsula Borough (using property tax revenues from residents), federal grants and a few fees (such as lunch money). The state and borough pay the largest shares.

How is the size of the budget determined? The amount available to the district is controlled by state law, which sets the amount of state and borough funding. The school district has no ability to increase its budget, nor does the borough. Only the Alaska Legislature can significantly change the amount of money the district receives. Other income sources are small, and their size and uses are restricted by law.

How much money does the district have? As of April 1, the total annual budget for the current school year was $92.3 million for the district, which has 9,800 students and about 1,200 full- and part-time employees. That works out to about $9,420 per student. Subtracting earmarked funds for items such as busing and school lunches, the operating budget has about $7,830 per student for education and related services such as school upkeep, sports, nurses and administration. The district has essentially no reserve or carry-over funds.

That seems like a lot of money. Why do educators want more? That money is not evenly distributed. The district pays more than $10,000 per student in its small, isolated rural schools. The operating budget also has to cover costs for students with severe health problems, handicaps or who don't speak English. In addition, it has to cover health and liability insurance, the cost of running large public buildings and the administration of the peninsula's largest "business."

If the district's budget is so tight, how could it afford to build a big, expensive school like West Homer Elementary six years ago? The state rules fund school construction completely separately from the rest of the school budget. When a new school opens, one-time funds are available to furnish and equip it with supplies. But after that, the district must pay, and it cannot afford to grant most school requests for replacement supplies or equipment.

Who decides how that money will be spent? The borough assembly has the final say on the school budget, but it usually agrees to the budget submitted by the school board. The board gets the draft budget from the district administrators, who formulate it using advice from public hearings and a committee, which includes school board members, administrators, teachers, support employees, high school students, parents and other volunteers from the community. In allocating the money, the district must follow legal guidelines (e.g. providing for special services) and its own policies (e.g. staffing schools according to formulas designed to promote fairness).

Are educational alternatives taking money away from our schools? Yes and no. Because funding is based on enrollment, when students leave the district, state spending in the community decreases. In the largest instance, state funding for 600 peninsula students enrolled in IDEA (Interior Distance Education of Alaska) goes to the Galena City School District (which does employ some staff on the peninsula). On the other hand, the alternative high schools in Kenai and Homer, the charter schools and the Connections home-school support program are self-sustaining parts of the district.

How can I prevent my school from cutting teachers or programs? Cuts are based on funding and enrollment, which are linked. If enrollment declines enough, staff positions will be cut, although there may be a one-year delay. The only way to prevent cuts is for enrollment to increase or for the state to increase its education foundation formula spending on the district or both. When asked this question, peninsula educators say: "Write your legislators."

How can I prevent my favorite teacher from being laid off? Layoffs are based on seniority, not merit. First-year workers are the first to go; tenured employees last. Unless a principal has several people to choose among, recommendations are not a factor. The district may try to hire a laid-off teacher for a vacancy elsewhere in the district, so your good word could help that teacher in the long run.

How do I help get rid of a bad teacher? Talk to the school principal. However, the district's ability to terminate teachers is limited because of employee contracts and labor laws. If disciplinary action is undertaken, the school cannot tell you because personnel matters are confidential. The district has forms available at each school, in the central office and online for people to evaluate district employees.

What do I do if I don't like a text or other class material? First, speak to the teacher, who controls supplemental materials in the classroom. If what you don't like is part of the required curriculum, you can complain to the central office, which has a special committee set up to review such complaints. You can also apply to volunteer on curriculum review committees, which go through each subject area on a six-year rotation to revise and upgrade texts and other teaching aids.

What can I do to help area schools? Get involved, ask questions, volunteer your time, talk to your elected representatives (and everyone else) about the issues and remember to vote.

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