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Community protests cuts to school pools and theaters

Leslie Jacoby, mother of 2020 Olympic swimmer Lydia Jacoby, address the Board of Education.
Riley Board
Leslie Jacoby, mother of 2020 Olympic swimmer Lydia Jacoby, address the Board of Education.

Every seat was full in the school board chambers Monday night as parents, teachers and community members turned out to protest proposed cuts to theaters and swimming pools in the district.

The Kenai Peninsula Borough School District is facing a $13 million budget deficit for the next fiscal year. Using leftover federal COVID-19 funds and savings, the district still needs to make up about $4.4 million and has been in talks for several weeks about how to find those funds before finalizing the budget in April.

Finance Director Liz Hayes presented a series of budget-balancing options at a Feb. 21 finance committee meeting, including cutting theater tech staff at the high schools in Homer, Seward, Kenai and Soldotna, and closing pools at schools across the district.

The theater tech cuts would save the district more than $600,000. It would save almost $700,000 from cutting pool managers, and the district says it would no longer be safe to keep pools open without managers.

“If we’re not gonna be funded appropriately, is it our responsibility to fund pools for the community?” School board member Jason Tauriainen asked at a finance committee meeting Monday morning. “Because our job is public education for elementary and high school students, and middle school students. So that might be somebody else’s job.”

At the finance committee meeting and work session Monday afternoon, board members reviewed the proposed cuts and agreed to submit that budget for approval.

Because salaries and benefits make up more than 80 percent of the district’s budget, another adjustment the board is proposing is a change to the pupil-to-teacher ratio, which would involve cutting about seven high school teaching positions and three middle school positions. Those cuts would save the district about $1 million. Other cuts include athletic directors, 10% of school supplies and extracurricular travel funds.

Later that night, in the standing-room-only chambers, a mix of theater students and swimmers turned out to push back against the proposed cuts. Several students were moved to tears as they recounted the role theater or swimming played in their lives. Soldotna High School student Jaylee Webster was one of more than a dozen students who spoke.

“Hearing that our theater techs can be cut, it hurts me,” she said. “The theater acts as a place for kids who are maybe outcasts, or they need to find people with similar interests in order to find friends.”

Asia Gross said she has been swimming since she was 2-and-a-half years old, and currently swims for Kenai Central High School.

“Even though you’re looking at a black line in the pool, as soon as your head comes up it’s conversation for 15 seconds and then swim again,” she said. “And that’s the joy of swimming. You have that opportunity to have community and also have sports.”

One parent who advocated against the cuts was Leslie Jacoby, mother of 2020 Olympic gold-medal-winning swimmer and Seward High School graduate Lydia Jacoby. She started a petition last week encouraging the district not to close the pools, which currently has more than 4,000 signatures. At the meeting, she thanked the district for the ways it had helped her daughter achieve her goals in swimming, and warned about the impact to future students if the pools closed.

“To close our pools would be to abandon the core mission for which KPBSD is funded,” she said. “Swimming is a life skill essential for public safety, physical health and mental health.”

Sara Erfurth, an English teacher who directs the school plays at Soldotna High School, spoke about how critical theater techs are to creative programming and assemblies and other events. She also referenced the value of theater to many of her students.

“Theater teaches self expression and collaboration. It makes students excited to come to school. For some, it gives them a purpose. It literally can change lives,” Erfurth said. “You know these things, and yet time and time again, theater and its resources are sacrificed on the altar of an Excel spreadsheet.”

Districts across the state are struggling with their budgets as state education funding falls behind inflation. Kenai district board members say they hope to get funding from the Alaska Legislature, at which point they would bring the cut programs back in. Board President Debbie Cary said the current list of cuts is designed to impact the classroom as little as possible.

“The final hope is that we will not have to implement these cuts. But these are the cuts that are farthest from the classroom,” she said.

The district is also closely watching bills in Juneau that would increase the Base Student Allocation and bring more money into the district. In June, after the legislative session, the board will revisit the budget and add back items as possible.

Riley Board is a Report For America participant and senior reporter at KDLL covering rural communities on the central Kenai Peninsula.
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