School sites talk budget

For a short time Tuesday night, schools from all corners of the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District were connected by a common cause and presentation: the budget.

Superintendent Sean Dusek presented an overview of the district’s 2017-18 budget and explained the process for figuring out the Fiscal Year 2019 budget in a Skype session Tuesday during district-wide community budget meetings. The meeting for many lower Kenai Peninsula schools was held at the Homer Middle School library, where representatives from the various schools then broke out into groups to discuss their own budgets, where cuts can possibly be made, and how to work toward sustainable funding for education.

While graduation rates for the district have gone up since 2010, enrollment, a major source of funding, has decreased. It has remained somewhat static since FY 2016, according to Dusek’s presentation, and is projected at 8,781 for FY 18 (see story, “Enrollment,” Business, page 3).

According to Dusek’s presentation, the current FY 18 general fund budget accounts for $138.2 million in revenues and about $138.6 million in expenditures. The district’s fund balance will be drawn on to the tune of $321,978, but Dusek noted in his presentation that there is a “strong possibility” of having about 100 fewer students enrolled than originally projected, so the fund balance could be tapped a little more.

The problem

There are a few, according to Dusek and the administration gathered at Homer Middle School. One of the biggest hurdles facing the school district, though, is a lack of forward funding for schools. Waiting for the state to approve its budget means waiting on filling positions and other uncertainties.

“One of my biggest frustrations being on the assembly the past two years is the lack of forward funding, and that’s really difficult,” said Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly member Willy Dunne of Homer, who was at the meeting.

Also in attendance was Rep. Paul Seaton, R-Homer, who also noted the toll that taking too much time with the state budget can take.

“We are looking at and struggling with how to get over the worst problem that we see, (which) is not having the budget funded in an early enough time that you don’t have to send out pink slips to all the non-tenured teachers,” Seaton said. “It causes many difficulties and losses of good teachers that can’t wait around to find out whether they have a job or not.”

Another issue is that schools are running out of places to trim the fat without having an effect on the classrooms. During the breakout sessions, Homer High School Principal Doug Waclawski noted that if his school were to cut the things he has control over that are not physical staff, the savings would only amount to about $150,000.

“That’s everything,” he said. “You know, that’s travel for sports, that’s all supplies, that’s the copy machines. … We couldn’t do that. But if we did, that’s about a teacher and a half,” he said.

Waclawski said that when cuts are made, it’s a matter of the administrative staff deciding where to direct them, with the input of the community. Usually what happens is that a couple sections are cut from each of the main subject areas, he said.

“We could do that, but at some point the cuts come to the point where you can’t take another section of, you know, ceramics,” Waclawski said. “… So, you know, does a program have to go?”

Finding fat to trim is even harder at very small schools, like Razdolna and Kachemak-Selo, according to Timothy Whip, administrator for both those schools at the head of Kachemak Bay.

For Whip, the two have run out of areas to cut that aren’t people in the schools. Neither school has a lot of extra resources or programs, he said.

“I think with us, that’s the only place you can cut,” he said.

Going forward, maintaining his staffing levels is Whip’s greatest focus.

“For small schools, you still need a certain number of teachers, and we’re getting down there already,” he said. “The last couple years the district has kept it steady, so we haven’t lost any staff, but that’s my main concern.”

What can be done?

Several people at Tuesday’s meeting in Homer talked about advocating to state legislators as a major way of turning the tides for funding in education. Dunne said it’s going to be important for residents to stay in touch with not only legislators, but local assembly members, too.

“I thinkl we’ll have a majority of the assembly that understands the importance of education, but (the) budget’s tight, and we’re facing a $4 million deficit at the borough, too,” he said.

The school district is slated to start working with the borough on its FY 19 budget in December. Dunne said the assembly’s main focus will be on looking at ways to supplement revenue, after suffering what he called a setback when the measure to raise the borough’s sales tax cap failed in the October election.

“I think the mayor’s election is going to be very important, as far as schools are concerned,” Dunne said.

Seaton, who taught both junior high and high school in the past, also encouraged meeting attendees to communicate with state lawmakers about education. In particular, he said offering them information about school and student success while they work on a state budget would be helpful.

“The only information we get on the success of schools is the graduation rate, and that’s a really good piece, but, you know, we don’t get any information from the school districts or from constituents on how many kids got the performance scholarship… we just don’t ever hear that,” Seaton said. “So it’s really important because we’ve a lot of legislators that are down there saying the schools are failing. … So if there are other measures of success, that is … really beneficial for that data to come to us.”

Mike Illg, a representative of the Homer area on the district Board of Education, emphasized advocating not only on the peninsula and to Juneau, but around the state as well.

“We know our representation is going to support public education, but I want to encourage everyone here, if you have friends, family, relatives that live in other parts of the state, educate them so they can educate their representatives,” he said. “Because if just the Kenai Peninsula is saying, ‘Yeah, we support sustainable funding,’ and then no one else in the state does … so, the more we can do to advocate on that level, is crucial.”

Principals from each school were asked to compile discussion questions which will be turned in to the district.

“I look at education, too, as an investment,” Dunne said. “It’s one of the best investments we make.”

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