Schools study places to cut

Kenai Peninsula Borough schools could see cuts to the arts and sports as well as more students in each classroom if the state can’t find ways to close its budget gap.

Community meetings addressing potential budget cuts to district schools on Oct. 13 asked parents and staff to discuss items that could be removed or reduced from their schools’ budgets to accommodate a 10 percent cut. For many schools, such a cut would damage their ability to provide the quality of education the community has come to expect.

Principals of area schools expressed concern over the low attendance at the Oct. 13 meetings, fearing many people may not be aware of the dire situation the schools are facing.

Between fiscal years 2012-2016, the district sheltered the schools as much as possible from cuts by scaling back on the district level and using extra money, totaling over $7 million, from the fund balance account, according to the video presented at the budget meeting. The estimated amount the fund balance will cover for the 2017 fiscal year is nearly $2 million.

Dipping into the fund balance is no longer an option as the fund balance must maintain a balance of three percent of the overall district budget, Homer High School Principal Doug Waclawski said during the Oct. 13 meeting at the high school. Now, the district must find a way to create a budget for 2018 without depending on the fund balance to cover a deficit.

Gov. Bill Walker has said that Alaska schools could be hit with anywhere from a 3 to 20 percent budget cut for fiscal year 2018, which would impact the 2017-2018 school year, Waclawski said. While a 20 percent cut to education is extreme, if the state’s budget outlook doesn’t receive additional revenue, it could happen, Waclawski said.

“This is an exercise in futility,” Waclawski said. “We need to think and have the community on board. Ask parents if they want a 40 student-teacher ratio to keep band and sports. This is to get people aware and to talk to their (legislators).”

At Homer High School, the 10 percent cut that was looked at by a small group of parents and staff meant finding a way to do away with $500,000 of the school’s budget. In the short video shown at all meetings across the district, Superintendent Sean Dusek said the goal was to make reductions as far from the classrooms as possible.

However, while looking at the budget, those in attendance saw that students would undoubtedly feel major cuts.

Cutting the number of teaching positions, which would increase classroom sizes, as well as eliminate funding for sports programs, were some of the few options discussed. Arts classes could also be cut to save money, but students are required to take arts electives to graduate high school and enter college, Waclawski said. One group, which included parents and school board members Zen Kelly and Mike Illg, discussed how much the district might save by combining Paul Banks Elementary with West Homer Elementary, or McNeil Canyon with the head of the bay schools.

Over at Homer Flex, whose budget is about 10 percent of Homer High School’s, a $55,000 cut would mean cutting half a teaching position. At a school that has three total teaching positions, it could mean having to offer certain classes through distance delivery, said Homer Flex Principal Chris Brown.

“Faced with such a cut, 10 percent, it would really alter what we do at Flex. We try to offer a trauma-informed care experience. One where students who haven’t had the best experience educationally, we provide them with a small setting where they don’t feel the pressure in other schools,” Brown said. “Right now we offer bare bones content. We have a science and math teacher, social studies, special education, language arts, and we all try to offer some sort of elective classes. If we would have to eliminate one of those positions, one of the ways we would have to go is offer distance delivered for a content area.”

Fireweed Academy seems to be in a unique situation in that they made the equivalent to 10 percent cuts when they cut 1.5 staff positions this past spring, said Fireweed Principal Todd Hindman. If the cuts are higher than 10 percent, they will have to look at their staff configuration, Hindman said. Eighty percent of the charter school’s expenses are staff.

Three sheets of paper lay on each of the two tables in the Homer High School library for people to write their comments. On the one that asked if 10 percent cuts were feasible, everyone wrote, “No.”

“Looking at a 10-20 percent cut is unacceptable,” said Shannon McBride-Morin, a parent of two children in Homer area schools. “There has to be a new source of revenue. That’s the message. They’re talking about cutting arts, sports, closing the pool, and class sizes over 30 (students). We’re proud of our schools. I got a kick-a-- education here. This is draconian. I blame the legislature for not taking hard action for new revenue. This should not be on the backs of our kids.”

McBride said she supports taxing the oil companies and an income tax to bring additional revenue to the state to prevent education from taking a major hit. Paul Banks Elementary Principal Eric Pederson shared a similar view on an income tax.

“We as a state need to find another revenue source. I don’t want to pay taxes either, but I do worry about these kids,” Pederson said. “I believe in public education and that they are our future. If we don’t act now, we’re not going to give these kids a quality education.”

A 10 percent cut to Paul Banks Elementary would mean losing $242,412, which is equal to roughly two-and-a-half certified teaching positions. Class sizes at Paul Banks, a kindergarten through second grade school, are now an average of 21.5 students to one teacher. A 10 percent cut would bring the average class size to 30 students, while a 20 percent cut would mean losing five teachers and maintaining average class sizes of 48.5 students, Pederson said.

“When you look at the budget there is really nothing really left to cut. The folks at my meeting had some great ideas, but nothing that could recoup anything near 10 percent, let alone 20 percent. It is imperative that people get informed and talk to their families, friends, neighbors and legislators,” Pederson said. “As a principal, I struggle to think of how my team would adjust to class sizes of 40+. As a dad of three school age students, my wife and I are talking about how possible changes would affect our kids.“

Anna Frost can be reached at anna.frost@homernews.com.

Couldn’t make the Oct. 13 meeting? Get informed and share your ideas with KPBSD with these four steps:

1. Watch the nine-minute video shown at the KPBSD community budget meetings: bit.ly/2dywpfc.

2. View any of the other short videos that explain aspects of funding and budgets: bit.ly/2e3UyLd.

3. Offer your comments, ideas, and questions online: surveymonkey.com/r/TKMYV3K

4. Attend a school site council meeting, school board meeting, and have conversations with friends, neighbors, and elected officials.

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