Students, parents and community members flooded Monday night’s meeting of the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District Board of Education to oppose the cut of school pool and theater staff proposed as a way to balance the district’s budget for the upcoming fiscal year.
The cuts are just two of the budget reductions put forth for consideration by the board’s finance committee as a way to offset a forecast $13.1 million budget shortfall for the upcoming fiscal year.
The district plans to offset that budget using about $6.4 million in leftover federal COVID-19 relief funds and will ask for full funding from the Kenai Peninsula Borough. The district can also draw from about $2.4 million it has in savings.
KPBSD, like other education entities around Alaska, is looking to the Alaska Legislature this year for an increase to the amount of money districts receive per student, also called the base student allocation. That amount hasn’t changed since fiscal year 2017, but was boosted by $30 for fiscal year 2024.
In addition to a robust increase to the BSA amount, education advocates including KPBSD leadership are also calling on lawmakers to adjust the amount annually for inflation.
Board members were adamant Monday that while they do not wish to cut any district programs, the district is required to present a balanced budget for consideration by the Kenai Peninsula Borough next month. By eliminating programmatic funding, rather than laying off staff, board members hope any additional funding received through the Legislature can be added back later this year.
Proposed cuts needed to balance the budget were the subject of the KPBSD Board of Education’s Finance Committee last month. The list was also discussed during a committee meeting and work session Monday prior to the board’s regular meeting.
Presented to board members last month was a list of potential expenditure cuts that was rolled over from 2019, when the district had to consider similar budget cuts after state funding dropped significantly.
On the list of proposed cuts are theater technicians at Homer, Seward and central peninsula high schools, as well as manager salaries and benefits for pools at Susan B. English, Skyview, Ninilchik, Kenai Central High, Homer, Seward and Soldotna high schools.
Cutting the proposed theater technicians would save the district about $617,000, while cutting pool managers would save about $685,000. Also proposed for cuts are student success liaisons, extracurricular travel funds, extracurricular hockey ice, athletic directors and extracurricular safety funds.
The proposed cuts also list 11 staff positions that would also be cut through an increase to the student-teacher ratio at some district middle and high schools. Bumping the ratio by three students at KPBSD high schools would save the district about $1 million by eliminating 7.5 full-time staff positions at certain high schools.
KPBSD Board President Debbie Cary told board members during a work session Monday that, in identifying where cuts could be made, the board finance committee tried to keep reductions away from classrooms.
“These are the cuts that were furthest from the classroom,” Cary said Monday. “They’re not there for a scare tactic. They’re not there for anything other than let’s keep them as far from the classroom as we can.”
Over the course of Monday’s meeting, board members heard from more than 25 people, including 13 students, almost all of whom urged the district not to cut funding for school pool and theater operations.
Tirzah Fredrickson, a senior enrolled in Connections Homeschool, said she has been swimming for 10 years and competed at the 2022 Alaska School Activities Association/First National Bank Alaska Swim & Dive State Championships in Anchorage this year. She said she was “disappointed” to hear that the board is considering pool cuts.
“It’s not just about the drowning rates in Alaska,” Fredrickson said. “It’s also about the opportunities to grow relationships with people and know how a team works. Our swim team has been like this great big family and that’s because of the people on the team.”
Leslie Jacoby, who said she was speaking on behalf of herself, her daughter Lydia and the Seward Tsunami Swim Club, said closure of school pools is “detrimental” to all user groups. Lydia Jacoby, from Seward, won an Olympic gold medal in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, when she was just 17, as the first Olympic swimmer from Alaska.
“We have many athletes close to their goal of achieving an Olympic trial cut for the 2024 Olympics,” Jacoby said. “To close our pools would be to abandon the core mission for which KPBSD is funded. Swimming is a life skill essential for public safety, public health and mental health.”
Sara Erfurth, who teaches English and theater at Soldotna High School, said she was “alarmed” to see that theater technicians were among the positions board members have considered cutting.
“Theater teaches self-expression and collaboration (and) makes students excited to come to school,” Erfurth said. “For some, it gives them a purpose. It literally can change lives. You know these things, and yet time and time again, theater and its resources are sacrificed on the altar of an Excel spreadsheet. What message are you sending to the students about what is valued when you do this?”
Soldotna High School senior Josiah Burton, who described himself as a “theater kid,” said participating in theater has given him an outlet to express his feelings and emotions. He said his involvement in high school programs has inspired him to pursue theater professionally and that, without it, Soldotna High School would be a “singularly uninteresting place.”
“I know a lot of kids like freshman, sophomores that are just getting a taste of this theater program (and) have found, in a sense, their calling and where they belong,” Burton said. “I know exactly how that feels because theater showed me where I belong.”
Students and parents weren’t the only ones who spoke about potential facility closures during Tuesday’s meeting.
Review of cuts, some said Tuesday, has revived a conversation about whether or not it should be the school district’s responsibility to operate facilities that can be used by the whole community.
Mike Illg, who previously represented Homer on the board of education, said the school district “needs to get out of the business” of operating pools and theaters and explore alternate ways of funding those facilities.
It is important to remember, Illg said, that school funding put toward facilities like pools and theaters is directly tied to the number of students enrolled in KPBSD schools even though some users are not affiliated with the district.
“We cannot continue to rely on student enrollment to make sure that these pools and theaters are staying open,” Illg said. “Most of the pools are being used for public use, not academic purposes.”
KPBSD Planning and Operations Director Kevin Lyon said Tuesday that pool managers are responsible for training lifeguard staff and are certified pool operators, meaning they know how to mix the chemicals needed to keep pools sanitary and at the right temperature. Without those managers, it is not safe, Lyon said, to keep water in pools.
Multiple board members Monday urged those who spoke to testify before the Alaska Legislature in addition to the board of education, underscoring that this year’s important financial decisions will ultimately be made by lawmakers in Juneau. Board member Jason Tauriainen, who represents Nikiski, spoke directly to students, telling them to direct their testimony up to Juneau.
“What you said here, write it down, or get into the (Alaska Legislature) when they have the meetings and give your testimony again,” Tauriainen said. “Please don’t let it die here. Because if you don’t help with (the BSA increase), your testimony dies here.”
Board Vice President Zen Kelly agreed.
“Take that passion and tell the people who can actually do something about it,” Kelly said. “They can actually bring the BSA up to match closer the rate of inflation.”
There are two bills currently up for consideration by the Alaska Legislature that would increase the amount of money school districts receive per student. S.B. 52, sponsored by the Senate Education Committee, would increase the amount by $1,000 per student. A separate bill, H.B. 65, would increase the amount by $1,250.
Alaska Senate Education Committee Chair Sen. Löki Tobin, D-Anchorage, said during a Tuesday press conference that the committee will introduce a substitute for S.B. 52 on Wednesday. That substitute, Tobin said, will include an inflation-proofing mechanism for the base student allocation.
“We’re looking forward to really taking in the input and the feedback that we’ve heard from parents, from education advocates (and) from our locally elected school boards on how best to provide that stable and predictable funding now and into the future,” Tobin said Tuesday.
The KPBSD Board of Education in April will approve a final draft of a balanced budget for the upcoming fiscal year, which is subject to approval by the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly as part of the borough’s overall budget. State lawmakers have until the end of the current legislative session, set to end on May 17, to pass legislation adjusting state funding for Alaska schools.
Monday’s board of education meeting will be available to stream on the district’s Board Docs page at go.boarddocs.com/ak/kpbsd/Board.nsf/Public.