School budget debate goes on

Posted: Thursday, April 22, 2004

The Alaska Legislature may grant more money to the state's schools this year, but without a long-term fix, the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District will be back in the red by fiscal year 2006.

That's the message Melody Douglas, the district's chief financial officer brought to the school board Monday afternoon during a budget work session.

The work session was designed to allow board members time to discuss possible "add-backs" to the budget programs or funds that may be reinstated if education funding currently being discussed in the House and Senate is approved.

However, while add-backs would be nice this year, especially in light of severe cuts approved by the board earlier this month, they likely won't last in the long run, Douglas said.

Admitting the future budget projections are a matter of guess and assumption, Douglas presented a sketch of anticipated revenue and funding over the next several years. If this year's proposed funding increase which adds about $400 per pupil to the state's education funding formula passes but isn't repeated, the school district still can expect to come up several million shy in the coming years. That's because expenses particularly employer contribution rates to the Public Employees Retirement System and Teachers' Retirement System and emplo-yee salaries and benefits increase each year. In addition, the district's enrollment continues to decline, meaning even less money from the state.

Based on Douglas' preliminary numbers, when the board begins working on the fiscal year 2006 budget next fall, it will face another $6 million deficit, similar to that faced this year. By 2010, the deficit cold be as high as $18 million.

Douglas said she prepared the numbers to help board members and the general public understand that the state funding increases under discussion, while necessary and appreciated, aren't the end of the story.

"Folks are not going to understand why it's not making a bigger impact," she said.

While the long-term forecast is dim, the approximately $4 million the district stands to gain under the current proposal would help with next year's budget.

The board, working under deadlines mandated by state law, approved a balanced budget earlier this month. That budget cut Quest, the district's talented and gifted program, the entire cocurricular activities budget and a number of other funds, including supplies and curriculum adoption.

If the extra $4 million comes through, the board will be able to add some cut programs back to the budget. But just what those add-backs will be remains to be seen.

At the top of the board's discussions Monday was the cocurricular activities program. Though some board members said earlier this year they wouldn't add back cocurricular if Proposition 1 asking voters to support borough funding for activities outside the district"s general fund didn't pass, the close outcome of that vote has changed some minds. The proposition failed by only 68 votes.

Board member Nels Anderson, for example, admitted he warned the programs wouldn't be reinstated without voter support. However, he said Monday he would favor adding the programs back for the 2004-05 school year while having an in-depth discussion of different ways to run the programs in the future. He noted that sports schedules for next year already are made and that cutting the programs now leaves schools and community members little time to find alternatives.

Board President Deb Germano said she wants to review how the $1.3 million the district pays for activities is used, particularly the formula by which schools are given stipend money and how schools choose to use those stipends.

Another hot topic for the board was the Quest program, which was cut by several teachers in the trimmed-down budget. A task force began examining the program in more depth Tuesday to look for better ways to serve the needs of gifted and talented students in the district.

But board member Margaret Gilman said she believes it is important to put money back into the program, especially if the task force deems changes are necessary.

Other board members said they would prefer to wait and see what the outcome of the task force meeting is before making a determination about the program"s financial needs.

Other topics of discussion included ways to use the potential money to lower the pupil-teacher ratio either for lower elementary grades or for high schools

PTR for kindergarten through third-grade classes has been one of the board"s top priorities this year, but board members noted that recent cuts have dramatically impacted high school classes, as well.

At the high school level, PTR affects not only class sizes but also the number of teachers and therefore, programs available to students.

Another concern for Douglas was the anticipated increases to PERS and TRS contribution rates and utilities. She noted these expenses are expected to continue rising and the district will have to pay the price, either sooner or later.

Despite nearly two hours of conversation, though, it was clear by the end of the work session that board members were not ready to make a decision regarding add-backs. Nor were they expected to, as no action can reasonably be taken before the legislative session ends in May and the governor signs off on education funding.

That, Germano said, is another point she wishes the public understood better. While board members welcome comments from parents and constituents, they also said the worry about the perception that decisions already have been made.

"I"m frustrated with the e-mails that say we've made a decision," Germano said. "These (people) are getting that information from somewhere."

In reality, the board will not take action on any budget add-backs if they even occur until at least June. More dialogue on the matter is expected to take place at board meetings until that point.

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