The Kenai Peninsula Borough School District will not convene a task force to study cocurricular programs, the school board said Monday.
Instead, the board will draft a resolution in support of the activities and continue work to find a long-term solution to funding the programs.
"I'd like to see us take the bull by the horns and say, 'Yes, we support cocurricular activities,'" said board member Sammy Crawford. "I'd like to see us set a percentage (of the operational budget) so everyone would know, for the next 10 years, we do believe in this, we can't fund it as much as we'd like, but here's some money."
Not all board members agreed with the idea to tie cocurricular funding to a specific percentage of the operational budget, but most agreed that a philosophical statement in support for the programs followed by a long-term funding designation would be appropriate.
Cocurricular activities, which include sports, as well as other outside-the-school day enrichment programs such as music ensembles, drama groups and academic competitions, have been heralded by many as valuable aspects of children's educational experience. Just Monday, school board members pointed out that the programs help develop leadership and employability skills, such as responsibility and work ethic; provide students with an incentive to achieve in the classroom; and offer positive, supervised after-school activities for youth.
In addition, board members acknowledged that a district without such activities is unlikely to retain families and teachers and that cocurricular programs help tie communities into their schools and the lives of youth.
Despite such acknowledgements, however, the programs have long been on the cutting board, sometimes perceived as "extras" in times of budget shortfalls. In the past four years, two task forces have been convened to study the operation of the district's cocurricular activities and to search for funding options. The last task force was responsible for a ballot measure put before voters last spring, asking for additional borough funding for the program. That measure failed by less than 80 votes.
The programs cost the district a little more than $1 million a year, out of a $90 million operational budget, paying for activities director salaries at large high schools, stipends for coaches and substitute teacher wages when teacher-coaches are out of town for activities.
In addition, the board last year set aside $50,000 in this school year to pay for stipends for coaches of academic-based activities, such as elementary school Battle of the Books competitions.
Other funding for the programs -- paying for everything from equipment and uniforms to travel -- are paid for by student participation fees, which go to individual schools, and by fund-raising efforts at the student and parent level.
Still, with issues such as rising insurance (the district's health insurance expenses already are up 28 percent over last year at this time), increases to contributions to the Alaska Public Employees Retirement System (PERS) and Teachers' Retirement System (TRS) and continued hikes to fuel prices, even $1 million is a big expense for the district.
Nonetheless, most board members said Monday they believe it's an expense worth paying.
"When we talk about losing cocurriculars, what we lose is the cream of the crop," said board member Sunni Hilts.
"I really agree people will leave the district or flat out refuse to come here if we don't offer activities," agreed board member Margaret Gilman. "It's the right thing to do for kids."
Gilman, however, said she would be more comfortable with listing line items the district would pay for than with tying cocurricular funding to a percentage of the general fund.
Board member Debbie (Holle) Brown was the only one to pose significant dissent on the matter.
"We know we are looking forward to deficits. Something has to go," Brown said. "The Alaska Constitution says we provide K-12 education. We need to define what that means.
"The borough wants cocurriculars ... but the school district cannot continue to pay for it."
In the end, board members asked the district administration to prepare a resolution in philosophical support of the value of cocurricular activities for action at the next board meeting, Oct. 4. From there, the board will continue discussions to determine whether and how the district can pay for such activities.
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