Equitable funding for the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District was the hot topic of discussion Monday when the school board met with members of the peninsula’s legislative delegation.
Sen. Tom Wagoner, R-Kenai, Rep. Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, and Rep. Paul Seaton, R-Homer, assured the board they understood the need, but stressed that getting support from other legislators will not be easy.
Sen. Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, currently is out of the country and was represented by his staff member Jane Alberts.
“The issue will still be to get a piece of legislation through,” Chenault said of the second half of the 24th Alaska Legislature, which convenes Jan. 9.
Chenault is in the process of developing several funding models he said he hopes will garner support.
“But it’s going to be ugly, I will promise you. If someone can hold it up, they will.”
Chenault is one of seven legislators on the joint School District Costs Task Force currently examining the Alaska School District Cost Update, a study completed for the Alaska Legislative Budget and Audit Committee by the Institute of Social and Economic Research, University of Alaska Anchorage.
Released last January, the study addresses school districts’ costs of doing business as determined by geographic differences, with rural regions incurring greater costs compared to the state’s urban areas.
If the results of the ISER study were fully implemented, only Anchorage would retain its current level of funding, with the state’s remaining 53 districts receiving increases.
The Kenai Peninsula would receive an additional $10.2 million annually, the single biggest increase. But education funding frequently becomes a bargaining chip for other legislation, the legislators told the school board.
“A lot of times, education gets caught up in political games,” Chenault said. “I don’t see any way around it.
“I know it is frustrating to know you are not getting your fair share, and there’s nothing you can do about it. Other districts affected are feeling the same as this district to some extent. I hope to hell we get something worked out, but if we don’t, it won’t be for lack of trying.”
Seaton pointed out the urgency of finding some resolution during the upcoming legislative session.
“If we can’t get it through this session, with the turnover in the Legislature next year, it’ll be like starting all over, and then it’ll all be up to you guys and the courts to do it,” Seaton said.
Wagoner gave perspective to battles for increased education funding by comparing it to the importance of securing a gas pipeline for the state.
“If that happens, it will overshadow everything,” Wagoner said.
That did not sit well with Sunni Hilts, board member from Seldovia, who stressed the district’s emphasis on putting children first.
“The gas pipeline is a top priority, but for what?” Hilts said, referencing the absence of training programs and the state’s dwindling work force.
“Does anyone think beyond the dollars and cents? This is beyond frustrating.”
During the board’s evening agenda, students from Kenai Middle School lightened the atmosphere with a computerized overview of the school prepared by seventh-grader Lincoln Wensley and a performance by eighth-grade students wearing “Welcome to All Kids” T-shirts.
Former board member Margaret Gilman, who recently was elected to the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly, was honored for her contributions to the board.
Presenting her with a gift, board member Sammy Crawford of Kenai characterized Gilman as a “fearless fighter for funding,” and someone who was “never afraid to ask the tough questions that had to be asked.”
Hope residents Jeanne Berger, Todd Bureau and Fayrene Sherritt spoke to the board about the importance of keeping Hope School open.
Currently with an enrollment of 12 students, it is one of two schools the district will consider closing if enrollment numbers drop below the minimum eight students set by state statute.
The other school is Cooper Landing.
Berger and Bureau said the community is exploring a number of avenues to keep the school open, including enlarging Hope’s job base, attracting more families to the community and opening more land to private ownership.
“The school has tremendous volunteer support,” Sherritt said. “There are 12 students, and there are 49 PTA members.”
Assistant Superintendent Sam Stewart delivered a class-size enrollment report to the board. It indicated class sizes are probably at the best levels they have been in the last five to 10 years, Stewart said.
A six-year enrollment projection prepared by Chief Financial Officer Melody Douglas reflected a drop of 861 students across the district by fiscal year 2012.
This year school enrollment dropped 191 students, as a result of students looking at other school options or moving out of the area, Douglas said.
The board also gave unanimous verbal consent for a student expulsion that was heard earlier in the afternoon.
The next board meeting will be at the Borough Building in Soldotna Dec. 5.
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