Time running out for Juneau

Posted: Sunday, April 08, 2007

We sound like a broken record.

Problem is, the Legislature is slow to hear the sound of school districts, parents and students crying out for their help. They need more funding.

It can’t be easy to hear the same cries over and over every session, but the noise should be a clue that what’s in place isn’t working, and it needs to be fixed.

Hello Juneau! Are you listening?

The situation on the Kenai Peninsula is putting our students at risk -- even more so than they have been in recent years past. Teacher numbers are getting slim. Supplies are getting scarce. Teachers already purchase items out of pocket when they can afford to, and now the district is facing even more teacher cuts without the state’s help.

It’s spiraling out of control when the federal government expects perfection in education but the state can’t pony up to keep teachers in the classrooms.

It’s not hard to see why people are screaming for less government these days. The feds and states can’t even play on the same field when it comes to educating our future.

We know every generation says it has it tough, but going to school on the Kenai isn’t looking as promising as it used to be in the old days. Sure, the opportunities to accomplish more in this generation’s time are greater, but first we have to get them to their graduation.

Alaska always has and will face its own challenges when it comes to our children, but education should never be one of the obstacles. It must be the one part of their life that gives them the chance to grow and blossom into their best potential. Where they go from there is their choice, but with knowledge they have a better chance to get there.

On Monday, the Kenai Peninsula Borough School Board approved its 2007-08 general fund expenditure budget of $113,434,399, and a budget of $131,136,419 for all funds. There’s still a $2.1 million difference between projected revenues and expenditures. Depending on how you look at it, the district has been fortunate enough to be able to put away money in the general fund, which they approved borrowing from to make the difference -- for now.

But that doesn’t solve the problem.

“We’re hoping the Legislature will come through, but if not, that’s another 25 teachers we’ll have to cut next year,” said board member Nels Anderson.

The gaping hole makes it hard to see the entire picture. Teachers are instrumental to the children’s success, but the money covers more than their positions. 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 support staff, books and supplies, paying bills and district administration, which he said is one of the leanest in the state.

“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.”

That’s a habit the district can’t fall into.

In a conference call between the board and Rep. Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, Chenault said lawmakers are working through possible solutions 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,” he said.

Chenault also has a proposal before the finance committee to change the area cost differential (House Bill 72).

It’s disappointing to hear that other legislators are not so sympathetic to the plight of smaller districts. While we appreciate their dedicated responsibility to their constituents, it would be encouraging to see politics put aside for a change.

Board President Debra Mullins isn’t optimistic, though.

“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. ... We hope this (budget) is not what we’re going to end up with.”

Even less optimistic is a comment made by Chenault: “... As you know, the process down here is like mating elephants.”

It’s sad when funding education for our children is reduced to such terms.

Only time will tell, but with 38 days remaining in the session, something better happen soon. Our children’s future is depending on it.

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