KENAI — As the 32nd Alaska Legislature works toward the end of the current session, the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District has its sights set on several pieces of legislation it would like to see get across the finish line.
KPBSD Superintendent Clayton Holland and Communications Director Pegge Erkeneff last week sat down with the Clarion to talk about some of the district’s legislative priorities and the impact different bills would have on classrooms.
Among the bills the district is focusing on, are two that address the amount of money the state gives school districts per student. That amount, called the Base Student Allocation, or BSA, hasn’t changed since 2017. The State of Alaska uses a tool called the Foundation Funding Formula to determine the BSA.
House Bill 272 would increase the Base Student Allocation from $5,930 — the current level — to $6,208 over the next two years. House Bill 273 would build on that by building annually on the allocation through adjustments for inflation.
Under HB 272, the BSA would increase by $253 the first year and by $55 the second year. A BSA increase of $253 for the 2022-2023 school year would bring $3,854,470 to KPBSD. The following year’s $55 increase would bring just under $1 million to the district for the 2023-2024 school year.
That additional money is especially important in light of projected budget deficits within the district, Holland said.
The district is projecting a status-quo budget deficit of about $7 million for the upcoming fiscal year, which begins on July 1, 2022, and ends on June 30, 2023. Continued deficits are projected for future fiscal years, according to the district. The school district kicked off budget negotiations with the Kenai Peninsula Borough earlier this year, where it requested $50 million from the borough. That would be in addition to contributions from the State of Alaska.
It would also be on top of federal money the district received during the COVID-19 pandemic from the federal government. In all, the district received three rounds of federal COVID-19 relief money, which comes from Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief, or ESSER funds:
The district used its first round of federal CARES Act ESSER funds — about $2.3 million — during fiscal year 2021, which ended on June 30, 2021.
Roughly $9 million in ESSER II funds awarded under the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act was used to save teaching positions during the previous district budget cycle.
An additional $20 million was awarded to the district through ESSER III funding under the American Rescue Plan Act, 20% of which is required at the federal level to help catch up students who fell behind academically during the pandemic.
Because the district has used some of that federal money to supplant its regular budget, however, the district is looking at an upcoming drop-off in funding.
“With the federal funding we’ve been receiving … we are facing another financial cliff again,” Holland said. “We’re operating currently on a $7 million deficit that we are really replacing by having the ESSER funding from the federal government.”
When federal funding goes away, Holland said, that deficit equates to about 78 staff positions that the district will no longer be able to afford. Among the strengths of HB 273, which would inflation-proof the BSA, is the potential for a long-term funding solution that would help offset the impacts of future budget deficits.
“We can’t operate the same way without inflation proofing and I think (HB 273) offers a long-term solution,” Holland said.
If the HB 272 and HB 273 pass, Holland said the corresponding bump in revenue for KPBSD would go toward preventing losing more than the district already has in terms of what it can offer to students. Priority would be given to whatever programming stands to have the greatest impact on students, he said.
In response to criticism that Alaska ranks highly nationwide in terms of spending per student and yet has some of the poorest education outcomes, Holland said people should keep in mind that reflected in the amount spent is the high cost of doing business in Alaska. When adjusted for the cost of operating in Alaska, Holland said, the amount of money spent per student is actually comparable to other states in the U.S., per a study from the University of Alaska Anchorage’s Institute of Social and Economic Research.
Within the Kenai Peninsula Borough, Holland said those higher costs of doing business are seen in the money the district needs to provide heating and electricity to buildings at 42 diverse schools, not all of which are on the road system.
“We’re a mini-Alaska on the peninsula with the type of schools that we have,” Erkeneff said. “You have to barge water and barge supplies across the bay, or fly it to get it to the school site.”
Something else to consider, Erkeneff said, is the additional costs that come with ensuring the same opportunities are available to all students within the district, regardless of where they live. The district is currently working to expand its remote learning opportunities such that students in, for example, Cooper Landing and Seldovia could take the same classes despite their geographic separation.
“We look at equity too as being really important for what we’re offering,” Erkeneff said. “We can’t have pockets where some students get everything and others students don’t.”
As it relates to educational outcomes, KPBSD also has its eye on SB 111. That bill, part of which was first introduced in 2020 as the Alaska Reads Act, aims to boost outcomes and would include funding for pre-K programming throughout the state. Holland said the value of pre-K is seen in the skills children learn that allow them to enter kindergarten on a level similar to that of their peers.
“There’s a lot of evidence to support it will work and provides a real long-term positive outcome,” Holland said.
Whether funding for pre-K programs remains in the final iteration of the legislation remains to be seen.
Other bills the district is tracking, Holland said, are SB 220 and SB 225. SB 220, Holland said, would focus on the retention and recruitment of staff, while SB 225 focuses on creating more pathways for people to become teachers that could help address shortages.
Another way of gauging outcomes for the upcoming fiscal years will be standardized testing. The state is switching to the Alaska System of Academic Readiness, referred to as AK STAR, starting this year for students in grades 3-9, which Holland said is targeted toward gauging the growth of each individual student.
Senate President Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna, said Monday that lawmakers have made it clear they want to see any bumps in funding for education tied to better educational outcomes. Within the Senate, SB 111 is legislation Micciche said is “important” to legislators.
Micciche said that’s on par with messaging from Gov. Mike Dunleavy, who has indicated he will likely be reluctant to approve any additional money for education without proof that steps are being taken to improve outcomes, such as those described by SB 111.
“We, across the board, are looking for better outcomes,” Micciche said.
Between now and the end of the session, Holland said the district will continue to advocate for legislation that would be advantageous for the KPBSD. The success of the school district, which is the largest employer on the Kenai Peninsula Borough, is tied to the success of the borough’s economy, Holland said.
“Strong schools and a strong economy go hand in hand,” Holland said. “The Kenai is in a position to have a strong economy … But to continue that trajectory involves having strong schools and supporting schools.”
Detailed information about each of the education bills currently before the Alaska Legislature can be found at akleg.com.
Reach reporter Ashlyn O’Hara at email@example.com.