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School budget talks reignite assembly debate about conflicts

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Sabine Poux/KDLL
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Should Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly members who work in the school district get to vote on the district’s budget?

It’s a question that stumped the assembly on Tuesday night, and came up within the context of setting a budget floor for the school district. The floor is the minimum amount the borough can put toward education for the next fiscal year. 

Ultimately, the two assembly members in question did vote. But it took a while to get there.

"I’m not sure that this just isn’t a political exercise," said Assemblyman Jesse Bjorkman. "The political exercise that should happen by voting. By people voting who elect us to sit here.”

Bjorkman is a teacher in Niksiki. Fellow Assemblyman Tyson Cox is married to a teacher.

Their potential conflicts came up last year, too, with a similar conclusion. But with the borough and school district facing COVID-19-related budget woes this time around, the process has been particularly tense.

Assembly members are typically not allowed to vote on matters in which they have something to lose or gain financially. 

Bjorkman and Cox argued they won’t benefit from any changes to the education budget directly. Cox said his voters knew his wife was a teacher when they elected him.

“And I would very much suggest that is one of the reasons that I was put into this position," Cox said.

But Borough Mayor Charlie Pierce said he didn’t think this conflict was different from others. He said when he worked at ENSTAR and served on the assembly, he frequently had to declare conflicts.

“How many times did I get conflicted? Always. Always conflicted," he said.

Borough Attorney Colette Thompson said she searched far and wide for a clear precedent but came up short. She said she agreed it was a conflict but told the assembly they could decide to let them vote. 

"I’m sounding like I’m wiggling all over the place and that’s because this is not crystal clear," Thompson said.

In the end, the assembly narrowly voted to allow Bjorkman and Cox to vote. 

The debate that ensued was just as spirited, as members weighed a $45 million versus $48 million budget floor.

The floor is the minimum amount the borough can commit to the district, though it can decide to send more. Pierce proposed a floor of $45 million. 

But he said he plans to fund the district $3 million higher, which is also how much the district is requesting.

He said he doesn’t want to over promise funds before he can see the updated sales tax numbers. The borough’s education budget comes from sales tax revenue. 

"As soon as we know our actual revenue, we will cut a check, and we’ll go down the hall and bring a check with the balance of the appropriation," he said.

While preliminary sales tax revenue has proved better than the borough anticipated, there are still some numbers from last fiscal year to shake out. 

Assemblyman Willy Dunne wasn’t satisfied with Pierce’s proposal. He suggested setting a floor of $48 million in an amendment.

"In a year that’s had a lot of uncertainty, we would provide a little bit of certainty to the school district," Dunne said. "Rather than spending another month of hand wringing and lobbying and discussing whether or not to fund at $48 million.”

Bjorkman agreed.

“It’d be one conversation if I knew that we were all on the same team and I could count on people up here to do what they say they’re going to do," he said. "But I don’t know if I can do that.”

They were the only two to vote for the amendment, and it failed.

Setting the floor is the beginning of the end of the borough and school district’s budget process. The borough will consider and hold hearings on the fiscal year 2022 budget as a whole — including the school budget — at its next two meetings.

A draft of the budget currently shows the borough funding the district at $48 million.

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