School district grapples with proposed budget cuts

‘Everything’s on the table’

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to clarify a paraphrased remark by Kari Dendurent to delete a remark that did not come from her.

When it comes to grappling with the proposed cuts to education in Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s budget, “everything is on the table” according to Kenai Peninsula School District administration and school board representatives. That includes school pools, theaters, teachers, and entire schools themselves.

As Kenai Peninsula Borough School District Assistant Superintendent Dave Jones put it, “there are no sacred cows” anymore.

Dunleavy’s proposed budget released last week seeks to cut $325 million from state education. That’s after he introduced a supplemental budget proposal to take back $20 million in one-time funding for school districts across the state that the Legislature had approved for Fiscal Year 2019. Districts across the state had already factored their cuts of that $20 million into their budgets. According to Jones, that money is sitting frozen in a bank account in Juneau.

Jones and other district administration representatives came to Homer Tuesday night to hold a discussion on what the proposed cuts to education look like, what they could mean, and where the district plans to go from here.

“This cut from the governor is beyond anything (the school board members) have ever dealt with before,” he said.

When the Legislature approved the one-time $20 million in supplemental funding, original estimates had the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District getting a little more than $1.4 million of it. Jones said in reality it’s slightly less than that: about $1.39 million. Before February, the district’s FY19 budget contained a deficit of $112,000 and allowed for $1.43 million to be spent from the district’s fund balance, or savings account. If the governor’s cut to the one-time funding comes to fruition, spending from the district’s fund balance would jump to more than $2 million, Jones explained.

When the district learned of the Legislature’s original allocation, Jones said administration decided to put 11.5 teaching positions, among other things, back into the FY19 budget. Should the district’s cut of the $20 million go away, those positions would be on the chopping block.

In theory, Jones said the Legislature could put their $20 million allocation for state schools back in the budget before they send it to Dunleavy to sign. But, he has the power to veto line items. If the funding was put back in the budget and he vetoed it, the Legislature would have to get 45 votes out of 60 total members of the Senate and House in order to override that veto.

Looking forward to FY20, Jones said the picture doesn’t get better. Along with cutting the University of Alaska System operating budget by $134 million, or 41 percent, Dunleavy has also proposed reducing funding to the foundation formula schools use to get per-pupil funding from the state.

The governor’s budget proposed cutting the state foundation formula funding by more than $269 million. In the KPB school district, that would result in a reduction from about $79 million to $60.4 million. That’s 22 percent, or $18.8 million less to work with in the district’s FY20 budget.

On top of that, the Legislature had also allocated another batch of one-time funding for schools in the amount of $30 million. The local district was slated to get $2.1 million of that. All told, if Dunleavy’s proposed budget goes through unaltered, the district would be staring down the barrel a $20.9 million in cuts.

“The first time I looked at that figure, I said, ‘Gotta be a mistake,’” Jones said. “Did the math three times. It’s not a mistake, folks.”

That $20.9 million in cuts is equivalent to 209 teachers being taken out of the school district. Jones explains that, if $20.9 million in cuts actually had to be made, it wouldn’t actually all come from teaching positions, but that the district wants to make a point by using that figure.

In reality, very little is known about how the FY20 budget will shake out, because its fate rests in the Legislature. Should legislators go past their allotted time and into a special session, as they have several times in the past, school districts around the state could be getting final information on their revenues and expenditures as late as the summer before the FY20 school year starts, Jones said.

“I’ve only been doing school business in Alaska for 22 years. This is the least I’ve ever known on what’s going to happen in 22 years,” Jones said.

Asked what things could look like on a local level, several area principals weighed in.

Homer High School Principal Douglas Waclawski said things like pupil-teacher ratios will go up with loss of teachers, while extracurriculars and other programs will be cut.

“You’re talking 40 plus students in a classroom, you’re talking programs gone,” he said. “… I would have no idea what would be left at that point with cuts that big.”

While discussing another issue, the district’s ongoing negotiations with teacher and support staff unions, Jones presented information on how the district could come up with the money to pay for the contract the unions have proposed. One option is to increase the pupil-teacher ratio. Increasing that ratio by three would result in reduction of 37.5 full time positions. Upping the pupil-teacher ratio by five would cost the district 56 full time jobs, while increasing it by 7 would lose 74.5 full time positions.

Homer High has only about 30 certified staff to begin with, Waclawski said. Mike Wojciak, the regional administrator for Voznesenka School and Kachemak-Selo School, pointed out that schools with different configurations would be hit by teacher reductions in a different way.

“Are they (the cuts) coming out of the secondary (education)? The middle school? Elementary?” he said.

Paul Banks Elementary School Principal Eric Pedersen wasn’t optimistic.

“I’d say for us, it would be very large class sizes at Paul Banks,” he said. “… But I think when you’re talking $20 million (in cuts), we’re going to have to talk about, maybe McNeil (Canyon Elementary) consolidates with Paul Banks. I mean, I don’t know. … I think those are the types of the conversations that people need to be aware of.”

Homer Middle School Principal Kari Dendurent said electives are likely to be cut and students would see a return to basic core content.

“I love our core content classes. I love math, and science and Language Arts and social studies as we all do,” she said. “But there are a lot of students who, that’s not their favorite. … The other question that we’re going to have too is, what is that going to do to our drop-out rate? How are we going to get these kids coming to classes?”

Dendurent also pointed out that cuts to education don’t just affect students and teachers. Community members often enjoy services offered through school districts, like school pools, theaters, gymnasiums and community programs. She said cities will find they won’t be able to keep families with teachers if those teachers begin looking for other jobs or are laid off.

“We want to save our jobs, but it’s really (that) we want to save our communities,” Dendurent said. “It’s not just the teachers, it’s not just the para-professionals, it’s not just the principals. … It’s not just about school, it’s about, what are the educators for KPBSD putting into the communities?”

From here, the school district will host more budget discussion meetings around the peninsula. District and school board representatives urged those in attendance at Tuesday’s meeting to contact their local and state representatives about education funding.

The district has a special meeting with the school board scheduled for March 21 where the two groups will discuss the budget.

“We’re stuck with having an education for our children that’s based on the value of a barrel of oil because we don’t have the courage to create a fiscal plan that has more revenue sources than a barrel of oil,” Jones said near the end of the meeting.

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