School board prepares to vote on lean budget

With less than a month from the vote, Kenai Peninsula Borough Board of Education members report they plan to approve the school district’s budget — though not without uneasiness.

Spending for next year has been reduced by $4.5 million from the current fiscal year, and further allocations or cuts from the state level are still uncertain.

“I think that what they have done is realistic,” said board member Marty Anderson. “You never want to lose programs.”

Subjects like music and extracurricular activities like athletics have decisive value in developing social skills, critical thinking skills and hand-eye coordination, he said. However, sometimes it comes down to working with what is available.

“At the end of the day, you want the child to leave school and want them to be prepared for getting a college education or the workforce,” Anderson said.

Soldotna High School junior Brian Dusek, who fills the student seat and will offer an advisory vote at the April 4 meeting, said while future effects remain to be felt, he and his peers aren’t expecting any significant differences in the way daily schedules will operate next year.

Anderson said he is pleased with how administrators developed the budget this year, and added he has only voted against the proposed budget once in the dozen years he has filled a seat on the board.

Tim Navarre said the deficit, or lack thereof, is what sold him on this year’s budget.

The projected deficit now sits at $138,665, after some major slashes. The majority of the cuts, $3.1 million, are for 35.41 full time equivalent staff and certified staff, and the remaining $1.4 million comes from reductions to travel, supply, software and purchased services expenses. In 2015, staff and services were reduced by $1.25 million from the previous year, and by $1.38 million in 2016.

The pupil-teacher ratio is set to rise, by 1 or 2 FTE, at all sites other than the school district’s two alternative high schools, Homer Flex and Kenai Alternative. Reductions in those two schools are not out of the question just yet. Board member Dan Castimore said he plans to make an amendment to the budget when it is presented in April to propose the board fund .5 FTE less for each school.

Aiming low early helps the principals, who are responsible for developing budgets for their individual schools, Navarre said. In terms of planning their year, it is easier for site administrators to put a teacher back into their classrooms than remove one if more funding becomes available, he said.

By doing so the school district plans for a lower, more accurate deficit, Navarre said.

“You never spend all of your money,” Navarre said.

In early 2015 the school district projected between a $3.9-8.7 million deficit, and reported the actual deficit is just less than $1.5 million.

Making cuts ahead of time means sending a more conservative budget to the state and borough that also reflects the extensive reductions a school district made to achieve a balanced budget, Navarre said. Seeing those cuts on paper may have a real impact, and officials won’t question the school district later if the projected deficit varies from the actual deficit, he said.

Navarre is a longtime proponent of the state forward-funding education. He said if the school district knew, if even only one year, in advance what money they would be receiving from the state or borough, it would make budget development much smoother, he said.

Board member Liz Downing agreed that uncertainties cause uneasiness throughout the process.

“At this moment, we don’t know what the Legislature’s final budget will be, what the final borough budget will look like and we don’t know what the governor will do when it is time to sign the budget,” Downing said. “This always makes for some discomfort when passing the budget, but it is not a static document and we can and will make adjustments as needed.”

Kelly Sullivan is a reporter for the Peninsula Clarion.