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Douglas knows ABCs of school finances

Posted: Sunday, October 29, 2006

When the president of the school board quipped last week that the school district should guard against having its top finance officer snatched away, several people snickered.

The warning, however, is not without merit.

Melody Douglas, who worked her way up to chief financial officer for the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District from the fixed-asset specialist position she was hired for in 1978, has just returned from Pittsburgh where she presided over the Association of School Business Officials International's annual conference.

“She is very highly regarded by people all across the nation,” said Board of Education President Debra Mullins.

In fact, Douglas, who is winding up her year as president of the association, was heavily recruited to become the executive director of the business officials group, which has members from the United States and Canada as well as from South Africa, Brazil, England, Japan and Indonesia.

Sitting in her Binkley Street office surrounded by stacks and stacks of budgetary charts and graphs, Douglas credits the professional development organization for the high esteem in which she is held.

“Many of the cost-saving measures we’ve implemented came from the Alaska or the international group,” Douglas said.

Among the ideas she brought to the Kenai Peninsula district is the introduction of procurement cards for use by school officials, allowing them to make purchases without processing them through the purchasing department.

The pro cards enabled the district to eliminate three full-time staff positions between the accounting and purchasing departments, she said.

By evaluating all processes such as this for efficiencies, the school district has been able to hold off on adding staff, Douglas said.

While developing the school district’s annual budget is a big part of Douglas’ job, as chief financial officer she also supports work in contract bargaining with teachers and the support association, she works on legislation issues and performs financial reporting.

“I make sure we’re as efficient as possible with the financial resources as they translate into the classroom,” she said.

Because she works continuously with the state, the Kenai Peninsula Borough, the public and internally with staff members, she considers herself “a communicator.”

The process of developing an annual budget begins with establishing an enrollment projection for the entire district, she said.

“At the same time, we determine available revenue and determine staffing needs. Then the budget is developed,” Douglas said.

“The revenue takes into account the students in schools and staffing addresses the needs for teaching those students,” she said.

The actual school buildings are owned and maintained by the borough as its in-kind contribution to education, a mandate of the state constitution.

“We’re running just under $120 million in the general fund for about 9,300 students,” Douglas said.

The school district’s planning process allows for the arrival of such new concepts as computerization and curriculum planning allows the finance department to project future needs of the district.

What qualifies Douglas for her job is all her experience, moving from fixed assets specialist to accounts payable specialist to chief accountant and director of business management, before becoming CFO.

She said her formal education also qualifies her to do budget work, as does her involvement in professional associations.

Douglas has a bachelor’s degree in business administration with an accounting major from the University of the State of New York, though she completed her studies at night school and through correspondence.

“I actually walked (for graduation) with Kenai Peninsula College,” she said.

When asked what she sees as the biggest challenge facing the school district, Douglas said, “My number one concern is the unfunded liability for the retirement systems (PERS and TRS) and the impact it will have on the district should there not be a legislative remedy.”

She said the action already taken by the Legislature, moving state pensions to a defined contribution — 401K — system is a solution for the future, but the unfunded liability, currently at $6.8 billion statewide, must be paid now.

“My personal opinion is we need to use the state permanent fund to pay the unfunded liability,” Douglas said.

The move would be justified because “educating our children is a renewable resource,” she said.

Focusing more immediately on the peninsula, Douglas said she will use information gleaned from the business officials association to accomplish software conversion work in the district.

She said the opportunity to serve with the association has brought a number of rewards for the school district and she “could not have served in (her) capacity with ASBO without the support of (School Superintendent Donna Peterson), the school board, staff and the support of the Alaska ASBO.”

For now, Douglas declined the lobbying attempts that would have taken her to Washington, preferring to stay in Soldotna where she lives with her husband in the Mackey Lake area, but she said she will be eligible to retire in 1 1/2 years and would like to spend time with hers and her husband’s extended families.

Phil Hermanek can be reached at phillip.hermanek@peninsulaclarion.com.



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