Student activities dangling in limbo

Posted: Sunday, June 01, 2003

Tim Delaney may have more time on his hands next year, but he's not pleased about it.

The Kenai Central High School athletic director is one of 226 Kenai Peninsula Borough School District employees who recently received notification that their extracurricular activity-related jobs won't exist next year if Gov. Frank Murkowski opts to veto the Legislature's education funding bill.

The notification, sent out on staff members' last day of school May 23, is a precaution, according to superintendent Donna Peterson, and eliminating extracurricular activities in the district is not an action anyone is anxious to take.

"We have to look at the worst-case scenario," she said.

Delaney said the notification came as no surprise.

"They're kind of just letting people know things might change," he said.

Under its contracts with employees, if the district knows a job will be discontinued in the coming year, employees must be notified by the last day of school.

In this case, the district knows no such thing. However, it also can't guarantee the stipends that go to teachers and community members serving as coaches, athletic directors and advisers to other extracurricular activities will exist.

"It's just not known," said Peterson. "(Employees) needed to know that, too. That was our conservative interpretation (of the contract rule)."

The district has been struggling with its fiscal year 2004 budget for months. As student enrollment and therefore state funding decreases, prices for many operation tasks are increasing, causing a significant strain on financial resources. The district also signed new contracts with the Kenai Peninsula Education Association and Kenai Peninsula Education Support Association this year, promising salary increases to all employees over the next several years.

Throughout the contact negotiations and budget process, the district had no idea what its 2003-04 revenue would be. The district is required by state law to complete its budget before the state is required to finish its own, meaning planning for the coming year always is a guessing game. This year, however, things were even worse as the state budget crunch threatened government education funding and left little hope for increases.

The district started the budget process by planning conservatively. A report earlier this year identified three areas where the district could save money: consolidations, changes to the pupil-teacher ratio and extracurricular activities.

A preliminary long-range plan to consolidate schools was drafted, drawing the ire of many community members. The plan looked years into the future, and many of the conversations were put on hold as most closures were deemed premature. A plan to consolidate Nikiski and North Star elementary schools in the fall of 2004 will be voted on by the school board Monday night, though. (See related story, page A-1.)

The district also increased the pupil-teacher ratio across the board, laying off 56 teachers and saving about $2.3 million.

Still, the preliminary budget was about $2.9 million short. To reconcile the problem, the budget passed April 21 by the school board includes cutting curriculum adoption funds, reducing central office staff, reducing custodial staff, eliminating co-curricular travel funds, eliminating unallocated funds and cutting the district supply budget in half.

Some of those cuts are bound to hold. For example, the school board also will vote on a plan to increase participation fees for high school sports to make up for the co-curricular travel fund cuts.

However, some of the cuts were drafted as place-holders. For example, the district cannot function with such severe cuts to the supply budget, which has been decreasing for years.

The school board passed the budget with the place-holder cuts and sent it to the borough assembly, which is scheduled to vote on it Tuesday night. All parties agreed, however, that due to the uncertainty of state education funding, the budget would have to be revised over the summer, after the Legislative session concluded.

As it turns out, the Legislature did pass a bill giving schools some of what they asked for. Learning Opportunity Grants, which in the past have been granted on a year-by-year basis for specific program offerings, were rolled into the state's education foundation formula. That means the district would receive more money per-student and have the opportunity to receive more money from the borough as well. It also means the district would have more flexibility with how those funds are used, though the flexibility sets up a tough choice between using the money for operating expenses or remediation programs and book purchases.

The bill also increases the base student allocation the amount of money districts receive per pupil from $4,010 to $4,169.

"If (the bill) is signed by the governor, we're fine," Peterson said.

The district budget still would be tight, but some supply budget and book purchase money could be reinstated, as could the unallocated fund.

The problem is the governor has threatened line item vetoes on some portions of the Legislature's budget, and whether education is on the hit list remains to be seen. At present, the education funding bill hasn't even been transmitted to the governor, and once it is, he has 20 days (excluding Sundays) to act on the bill.

"We're urging, first, to get the bill to the governor, and we're urging him to sign it," Peterson said.

If, however, education funding is vetoed, the district will have to regroup, and extracurricular activities are the only place left to cut, she said.

It's a drastic measure that would have to be taken, Peterson said.

Delaney said he understands the district's position, but added that eliminating extracurricular activities is more than drastic.

"As a parent, it means my daughter wouldn't have the opportunity to participate in extracurricular programs," he said. "That, of course, is my No. 1 disappointment, because I think those opportunities are important."

Moreover, though, he said cutting extracurricular activities could have serious repercussions.

"As someone who believes it's an experience that is valuable not only to the participants, but also to those who share an interest in them, I think the climate of the school would suffer," he said. "If this did hold, enrollment would also suffer. People who believe it's an important option for their children will look elsewhere."

Both Peterson and Delaney emphasized, however, that the cuts are only a "what-if" scenario and no decisions have been made.

"We're trying not to create too much panic," Peterson said. "We're in a wait-and-see pattern, and I hate it."

Delaney agreed.

"I just don't know what's going to happen. I can't predict the politics of the situation. I just hope this is something that doesn't come to pass."

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