School advocates pan state policies

Posted: Friday, October 19, 2001

A forum on school funding turned into a critique of state policies and a call for increased school spending.

"It costs money to educate kids. ... If you want to run a quality program, that is what it is going to take," said Dick Swarner, former finance director from the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District.

Swarner worked for the district from 1968 to 1997; he has one child still in school and three who graduated. He said that now that he is retired, he can speak his mind.

Swarner slammed the Alaska Legislature's school policies as politicized, short-sighted and anti-education.

"There is no statesmanship in this state," he said.

Swarner listed a series of grievances against politicians whom, he said, have saddled public education with additional burdens at the same time they have taken away schools' resources.

After the flush money years of the 1970s and early 1980s, the state reined in high spending. But now the cuts have gone too far, although the public may lag in realizing it. The results are frustration among educators, a loss of public confidence in the school system and fewer opportunities for students, he and others at the meeting said.

"The political climate in Juneau does not like education," he said.

The meeting was hosted by the Soldotna High School Parent Teacher Student Association. The group invited Swarner and the public to discuss the state's education funding.

About two dozen people, mostly school district employees, attended.

Federal rules set up to prevent disparities in education funding led the state to set caps on the amount local governments such as the Kenai Peninsula Borough can put into schools. Control over how much money is set aside for students rests with the Legislature, he explained.

The state has not fully funded education since 1986, Swarner said, and when legislators say they have, Swarner sees red.

"It infuriates me," he said.

The state allocates money using a formula based on the number of students. The way the formula is set up, especially since it was reformed in 1998, is fair and straightforward, but the amount of money going into it should be increased, he said.

Over the years, funding increases have not kept pace with inflation.

The state used to be ranked first in the nation in the amount of money spent per student, but now it is seventh, he said.

For example, teacher pay has slipped markedly.

"The average teacher salary in Alaska has gone down 11 percent in the past 10 years," he said. "Average salaries in the rest of the nation went up 6 percent."

One state study released last year recommended the base allocation per student go up by $164 this year. The Legislature approved a $70 increase.

"The Legislature doesn't want to inflation-proof the foundation formula. But look at how much they pay to inflation-proof the permanent fund," he said.

Swarner noted that the dividend program means that most Alaskans get more money from the state than they pay into it in property or sales taxes.

"We've got a freeloading society in this state. People say they pay taxes, but they don't," he said.

Among the drains on schools are unfunded mandates, such as training for teachers, state-ordered testing and special education.

Swarner said special education rules imposed by politicians are expensive, bureaucratic and fodder for lawsuits.

"Frankly, that has gone haywire," he said. "You just can't avoid astronomical costs."

The district's commitment to small, community-based schools has come back to bite it financially, he said.

"It was a dumb move, money-wise."

Decisions made decades ago are now costing millions in operating costs, and small, rural schools are extremely expensive to run. The district would run more cost-effectively if it had expanded Soldotna High School instead of building Skyview and if it could close small, remote schools, he said.

"It's awfully hard to have a high school program for four kids," he said.

Swarner also criticized the correspondence home-school movement and the state's allowing families to enroll out of the area.

"The thing that really torques me off is that the state let another district steal our kids," he said.

Combined with demographic factors, it means some schools are below capacity and enrollment is expected to fall in future years.

Even more financial problems could be on the horizon.

Swarner said the U.S. Supreme Court is due to make a major decision about school vouchers in February. He predicted dire consequences if the vouchers are approved.

"You can kiss public education goodbye. Mark my words," he said.

District Superintendent Donna Peterson said the district is able to keep doing a good job so far because of the dedicated people of the Kenai Peninsula.

She advocated pursuing a strong relationship with the legislators, promoting the reports that document the need for increased school funding and lobbying to get more money added to the state foundation formula. If those don't pan out, she agreed with the assessment that funding declines are pushing peninsula schools toward crisis.

"It is a terrible time to be a superintendent," she said. "Unless this is turned around, I don't know what the future of public education is going to be."

The one lawmaker who attended, Soldotna representative Ken Lancaster, said change is in the wind.

"In my opinion, you will have a new piece of legislation," he told the group.

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