Local college at risk in face of governor’s proposed budget

Fear and uncertainty lace the atmosphere at Kenai Peninsula College’s Kachemak Bay Campus in response to Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s state budget proposal, released on Feb. 13, that threatens to cut $134 million from the University of Alaska. Students and college staff alike worry for their academic and professional futures, and whether there will be a future for the Kenai Peninsula College at all.

The proposed cuts in Dunleavy’s budget represent 41 percent of the university’s state funding, or 17 percent of the university’s total budget. Over the last five years, Kenai Peninsula College as a whole — which includes both the Kachemak Bay Campus (KBC) in Homer and the Kenai River Campus (KRC) in Soldotna — has already experienced cuts to state funding amounting to 17.8 percent, according to KBC Interim Director Paula Martin.

“That (caused) significant cuts to staff and faculty and really reduced services at certain times of the year,” Martin said. “That was a 17.8 percent cut spread over five years. So in comparison, the governor’s proposed budget has a 41 percent cut in one year, starting July 1 of this coming summer.”

Martin was the Assistant Director for Academic Affairs for Kenai Peninsula College from 2008-2015. She was given permission by KPC Director/CEO Gary Turner to act as spokesperson for both KBC and KRC.

The Kachemak Bay Campus Student Association (KBCSA) has also been experiencing financial restraint due to previous budget cuts and is struggling to provide their customary level of service to the student body because of lack of funds. They were nearly forced to fire two of their officers earlier in the academic year but were saved from making such a decision due to an anonymous donation to the association’s operating budget, according to Association President Zobeida Rudkin.

“Our campus keeps getting cut. The money keeps getting cut,” Rudkin said. “We have less things being offered, so we have less students, which gives us less money. It’s a vicious cycle. This 41 percent (cut) could really hurt us.”

In an email sent to all University of Alaska students on March 6, University of Alaska President Jim Johnsen wrote, “With a $134 million cut, UA would have no choice but to immediately eliminate academic programs mid-stream, along with about 1,500 faculty and staff that support students in those programs. That large of a cut would also mean campus closures and reductions in other academic and administrative programs and services, resulting in less access and service to Alaskans.”

There has also been speculation that tuition rates will drastically increase as a result of a reduction in state funding to the university.

“In the governor’s proposed budget, he did provide revenue-generating authority to the university to make up for the 41 percent cut. However, where does that revenue authority come from? Tuition is one of the potential approaches, but it would take doubling of tuition to get to that kind of revenue replacement,” Martin said. “We would expect a dramatic decrease in enrollment if that kind of tuition response happened.”

With Fiscal Year 2020 rapidly approaching, any cuts that are approved as part of the final budget will take effect by July 1, according to a UAA FY20 Budget FAQ last updated March 4, 2019. The full FAQ document can be found at https://www.uaa.alaska.edu/about/administration/office-of-the-chancellor/advocacy/_documents/19.03.04%20UAA%20Budget%20FAQ.pdf.

“A cut of this magnitude, if it becomes reality, will devastate the University of Alaska as we know it today, and its capacity to lead in creation of a strong and diverse economy for years to come,” Johnsen said in an initial presentation to the Board of Regents (BOR) on Feb. 28.

At this point, no one knows exactly what the future of the University of Alaska as a whole will look like, much less the future for smaller campuses such as those of Kenai Peninsula College. Johnsen and other university leaders are working closely with the Board of Regents to come up with contingency plans should this current proposed budget cut become reality.

On April 8, Johnsen will be presenting again at the Board of Regents with a more cohesive contingency plan that will entail next potential actions for the university. BOR meetings are open to the public and can be live streamed online during open session from https://www.alaska.edu/bor/live/.

“The president is trying to position the university for the best possible outcome for the students and for the state…by focusing each university on a core mission,” Martin said. “They’ve already said, you could cut every community campus, and it’s only going to save … $35 million.”

The only positive response to the proposed budget plan has been the increase in collaboration and community determination between college students and staff as they navigate these uncertain waters, according to Martin and the officers of the KBC Student Association.

“I’ve seen both the students and the staff take a high level of interest in what might be the results of the proposed budget,” Martin said. “There’s a lot of uncertainty, and they feel that uncertainty, as we all do, and I have been really pleased by seeing both the students and the staff take a proactive approach in trying to learn more.”

One such proactive approach is the “Ask Me Anything” meetings linked by video conference and hosted by University of Alaska Anchorage (UAA) Chancellor Cathy Sandeen for students, staff, and faculty of UAA community campuses. The next meeting is scheduled to be held on April 10 from 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

Kachemak Bay Campus is also hosting free advocacy training events, open to the public, to empower individuals in effectively arguing for what they value, particularly in the face of the current political and academic atmosphere. Event attendees will learn about legislative voting, contacting their legislators, writing letters to the editor, using social media, and creating effective messages. The next advocacy training sessions will be held in the KBC Pioneer Hall Commons on Monday, March 25 at 5 p.m. and 6 p.m.

Additionally, KBC is working to install new signage across the campus in order to better draw in students and direct them to their destinations more easily.

Much stands to be lost in the face of the governor’s proposed decimation of college education in Alaska. As of Jan. 29, KBC has 722 students enrolled in 64 course sections, which can be broken down to 19 face-to-face, eight video conferenced, and 37 online course sections. Also as of Jan. 29, KRC in Soldotna has 1,626 students enrolled in 194 course sections, which can be broken down to 80 face-to-face, nine video conferenced, 87 online, and 18 blended (online and face-to-face) course sections.

During the fall 2018 semester, KBC had 809 students enrolled and KRC had 1,850 students enrolled as of Sept. 12, 2018. The higher number in student enrollment for KBC during the fall semester is likely due to the Semester By the Bay students that would have been enrolled at that time.

Kenai Peninsula College as a whole fulfills a vital function to the academic and economic spheres of the Kenai Peninsula Borough and the greater state of Alaska. According to an economic impact study prepared by the McDowell Group in April 2009, “the top five reasons students choose to attend KPC are convenient location, low cost, types of courses offered, types of programs offered, and small class size.” These five reasons are still highly applicable today and indicate the fundamental necessity of the college to students and citizens living in the state of Alaska. The full impact study can be found at http://www.kpc.alaska.edu/files/resources/kpc_econ_impact_study.pdf.

Kenai Peninsula College also offers several industry certification programs, including EMT and paramedic training, nursing programs for certified nursing assistants and registered nurses, and welding certifications. KBC also offers marine technology courses sponsored by the United States Coast Guard that allow students to earn mariner credentials and learn practical job skills for working on marine vessels.

Kachemak Bay Campus sees an incredibly eclectic mix of students, including those seeking two- and four-year degrees on campus and through distance-based education, students from Homer High School participating in the JumpStart Program, students participating in the GED and adult basic education programs, senior citizens and life-long learners continuing their educations well past earning degrees, and members of the greater Homer community who attend non-credit courses to expand their knowledge or enhance their professional skills. KBC is also unique as it hosts the Semester By the Bay program, in which students from universities across the country majoring in the biological sciences come annually to Homer to spend time in the field learning about Alaskan marine species and habitats and working face to face with several marine programs and coalitions.

The JumpStart program, held at both KBC and KRC, offers discounted tuition rates for high school seniors and juniors and is funded by the Kenai Peninsula Borough. Some borough funds are also used to support several student success activities at both campuses, as well as partially or fully funding a variety of staff. However, though the borough has voted consistently year after year to continue supporting the JumpStart program and Kenai Peninsula College, they do have the authority to direct those funds to fulfill a deficit elsewhere.

“The borough has always supported KPC, and we hope it will continue, but with this proposed budget from the governor, the borough is facing significant financial challenges,” Martin said.

“A lot of JumpStart students have come up to us and said, ‘I was planning on coming here full-time next year, what can I do?” Rudkin said. “The one thing that we can tell them is people are getting paid to figure this out, so they just need to focus on their classes. Sometimes it helps.”

Kachemak Bay Campus also has the unique privilege of sponsoring the nationally recognized Kachemak Bay Writers’ Conference, which has been held annually at Land’s End Resort in Homer since 2002. Thanks to the efforts of Carol Swartz, founder of the Kachemak Bay Writers’ Conference and recently-retired director of KBC, and others, an endowment has been established through donations raised over the years to support the conference, as well as the writers and attendees. For the time being, the Kachemak Bay Writers’ Conference is secure.

“I will say this, the University of Alaska will be around next year,” Martin said. “What its shape will be is uncertain right now. But it will be around.”

Delcenia Cosman is a freelance writer living in Anchor Point. Editor’s note: While attending Kachemak Bay Campus in the past, Cosman was a member of the Kachemak Bay Campus Student Association.