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Activities funding vote sent the wrong message

Posted: Sunday, April 11, 2004

Kenai Peninsula Borough residents had a chance to send a message last week at the ballot box, and in fact, they did.

Unfortunately, that message was the wrong one.

The recent mail-in advisory vote on cocurricular activities could have been a golden opportunity to tell the rest of the state that the Kenai Peninsula is willing to pony up a little more when it comes to education funding.

Instead, voters by a 68-vote margin said they care more about protecting their pocketbooks than the future of the area's young people.

Had the measure passed, the borough assembly would have been advised that they should look "outside the cap," or above the amount municipalities are allowed to contribute to school operating budgets. 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.

Half a mill is equal to $50 in property tax for every $100,000 of property someone owns.

Following the vote, the board of education passed a budget that includes no funding for cocurricular activities.

Does this mean an end to high school sports, plays and concerts? Probably not. The Alaska Legislature is looking at a bill that could give the borough enough money to replace some of its cocurricular funding.

But that's not guaranteed.

What's also not guaranteed is that funding for these activities will be available in the future. Since the Legislature is unlikely to include any kind of guarantee to increase the per-student funding rate in the future, this same issue likely will come up again.

Had the cocurricular measure passed, it would have sent a message to Juneau that the Kenai Peninsula feels strongly enough about education funding that its residents are willing to pay a little bit more to see that our students get the most well-rounded school experience possible.

Would the politicians have taken that message to heart? That's hard to say. But at the least, they would have had a hard time ignoring the vote.

Some who voted "no" have laid out their arguments both in the pages of this newspaper and in other public forums. Their arguments range from "I don't have kids, so why should I pay?" to "Why doesn't the school system tighten its belt?" to "What's wrong with getting back to the basics of readin', ritin' and 'rithmetic?"

While these are all valid arguments, they're each flawed and require an answer.

First, the children of the Kenai Peninsula belong to us all. The future of this area depends on its youth, and providing a solid educational background is the duty of the entire community not just those with children in school.

Second, the school district has consistently been cutting its budget in recent years, to the point where teachers are being laid off and more cuts to services are being made. There are even proposals on the board to shut down entire schools. If this isn't belt-tightening, what is?

Third, education is simply more than the "three R's." Students who are in after-school activities be they band, track or cheerleading are more likely to attend school, get passing grades and be more involved with their fellow students and the community. Many students remain in school solely for these activities, and many would likely end up dropping out or causing trouble if it weren't for these programs.

Supporting education is something voters ask of candidates each election cycle, and it consistently ranks as one of voters' highest priorities. Yet, when it came time to pay a little more to help ensure that quality education continues here on the peninsula, the voters said they'd rather have someone else pay the price.

This was the wrong message to send the assembly, the Legislature and most importantly the students.



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