Education issues, solutions addressed

Posted: Thursday, November 27, 2003

When Merrill Sikorski opened Tuesday night's student-organized education forum, he said the night was to be about dialogue.

"It's a word in the English language that isn't used much anymore," he said. "So this is a time for dialogue. If you've been to a lot of forums with the traditional rules and questions that bore you to death, let's break the rules. And if you're one of those folks who like to have these forums to complain, please don't. Please, give us something."

By the end of the evening, Kaitlin Vadla, one of two Soldotna High School students who organized the forum, said the goal had been met.

"We got ideas," she said. "It wasn't complaining, it was problem solving."

Vadla and classmate Ryan Walton planned the forum after realizing that many students didn't have the background they needed to adequately discuss education issues in the state issues that affect them directly. The pair invited leaders from the Kenai Penin-sula Borough School District and assembly, as well as the Alaska Legislature, to have a discussion with the community about those issues. And, Vadla said, to discuss solutions to the many challenges schools in the state and particularly in the borough are facing.

"We talked about a broad range of issues," she said. "And they all tie together."

The evening started with a panel answering questions Vadla and Walton had prepared as an introduction to the issues. Panel members included Sen. Tom Wagoner, Reps. Kelly Wolf and Mike Chenault, assembly President Pete Sprague, Soldotna Mayor Dave Carey, KPBSD Assistant Superin-tendent Sam Stewart and school board members Nels Anderson, Deb Germano, Margaret Gilman, Debbie Holle and Sandy Wassilie.

Vadla asked the panel members to discuss the state's responsibility to fully fund education, the school district's financial future without such funding from the state and federal governments, the much-discussed area cost differential study of last year and the overall future of the district.

The panel members had differing perspectives on many of the issues particularly the idea of "full funding" but all agreed on one matter: The district is struggling.

On the optimistic side, Stewart said he believes the school district will find a way to survive, no matter what the future brings.

"But we'll look different," he predicted.

The problems are many, according to the panel.

One is the state's method of funding education. The funding formula is complex "too complex," according to Wagoner.

"It's very clear the funding formula is broken and needs to be fixed," he said.

To offer a brief synopsis, Gilman explained that the state gives districts a certain amount of money per student, currently $4,169. That number then is multiplied for certain factors, including the number of students in special education, vocational education and bilingual programs.

It also is multiplied by the area cost differential, the idea of which is to account for the different costs of operating schools in rural versus urban environments.

That differential is one of the issues panel members discussed. The problem is that the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District is considered urban because it has nearly 10,000 students, compared to smaller districts like Pelican, which Germano said has less than 40.

But the formula doesn't adequately take into account the location of some of those students' schools, like rural Tyonek, Seldovia or Port Graham, which are not on the road system. In fact, Germano said, the district is the only one of its kind in the state, mixing rural and urban schools.

There have been several statewide studies to address the differential formula, including one that was presented to the Legis-lature last spring. However, that most recent study like its predecessors has been shelved, legislators said.

Chenault explained that's because there are winners and losers across the state in any attempt to change the formula. And while the Kenai Peninsula may be a winner in any changes, more districts would come out losers.

"This is the political portion," he said. "If I was representing Wasilla, why would I ever vote to cut spending in my schools so other people could have it?"

Though all the panel members agreed the Kenai Peninsula is being shortchanged, most said the cost differential isn't a place to put hope.

Rather, school board members said the state needs to be more responsible in meeting its constitutional obligation to fully fund education.

But, legislators said, that responsibility needs definition.

"When we talk about fully funding education, we're talking about who's idea and how much money," Chenault said. "We have people come every day to the Legislature and say to fully fund education. How much is that? I believe we are underfunding education. I'd love to put more money in, but we have to look at the dollars available and try to allocate them."

Gilman had an answer: "I would say $4,500 per student would be a very good start."

As the night went on, the legislators said they would support such an allocation, if they had the money to fund it.

In fact, when Germano said, somewhat jokingly, that the district needs a Republican to introduce such a measure, Wagoner and Wolf both said they would be willing to work to see it happen in the next session.

Wolf, however, estimated that the increase would cost the state between $70 million and $75 million, in a time when money already is short.

"It's going to take leadership in the Legislature, leadership by the governor and leadership by the people," Wagoner said. "We need to finally realize we have been on holiday since ... 1969, and the holiday is over.

"We are a spoiled class of people. We've been spoiled for the last 30 years, and it's time we have to face the reality that everybody else in the rest of the country faces."

That is where the public comes in, panelists said.

Several members of the audience took an opportunity to share their thoughts on education with the panel and to ask for direction in affecting change in the state.

Gilman asked audience members to use the backs of their agenda handouts to write down three ways they would be willing to see the state budget cut or would be willing to contribute to state revenue.

"There are people who really think government is evil and there's always a lot of slush," Anderson said.

"Until people realize they are the government and these funds need to be allocated appropriately, we're always going to have this problem."

While that comment didn't resonate with all the audience members, several did say they would be willing to do their part to help the state fund education.

"First, look at a flat income tax statewide. I believe that's most equitable for all of us," said Sharon Brower of Nikiski. "Then, use a percentage of the permanent fund. Then, an income tax again."

Penny Vadla, a teacher who also is Kaitlin's mom and the reason the teen says she is versed in education issues, agreed.

"I believe in a state income tax," she said. "You can take my permanent fund, too. ...

"You guys got an education, I got an education. Give them an education."

Taxes and use of the permanent fund are not popular options throughout the state. That's why the students at the forum wanted to know what they could do to make change, as well.

"Is there any way we can get involved instead of saying 'more money'?" asked student Katy Pankowski.

The panelists said, "Yes."

Germano suggested students pay attention to the upcoming discussions of the borough providing funds for cocurricular activities, which Sprague said likely would come up at the next assembly meeting Dec. 16.

Gilman suggested students organize a youth voting registration drive focused on education.

"Voices of students are very loud," she said.

Likewise, Wolf said students could make their voices heard by writing letters.

"There are 10,000 students in the district ... send 10,000 letters with one or two recommendations of what you want to see us do."

While such ideas may not have an immediate effect, especially on the many legislators in other regions of the state where schools aren't suffering as much, solution-oriented discussion is a step in the right direction, the panel said.

And Kaitlin Vadla agreed.

"The discussion doesn't end here," she said. "We're going to contact the governor and members of the Legislature, tell them what we talked about here, explain our situation and give them the answers and ideas and solutions they're asking for.

"Hopefully, we'll get the ideas not only to our legislators but out in the state."

And as for writing 10,000 letters?

"We will," she said.

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