School district waits on legislative solutions to budget woes
This spring, lawmakers in Juneau have heard hours and hours of testimony about issues related to school funding — from educators like Jenna Fabian, the principal at Nikiski North Star Elementary School.
“As a principal, I’ve spent a lot of sleepless nights worrying about burnout, and our educators leaving the profession,” she testified. “I’m even more worried about whether or not we will have qualified candidates for those vacancies.”
Fabian is part of a chorus of voices advocating more funding for Alaska schools, as districts around the state wait anxiously to see if the Alaska Legislature will increase school funding after years of stagnant state support. The recently passed House budget includes a one-time boost that Kenai district officials say would solve this year’s budget shortfall, but won’t save the district from long-term struggles.
Both chambers of the Alaska Legislature are evaluating options.
On one side, the House of Representatives is considering a temporary fix. Its budget bill includes a $175 million one-year boost to in-state funding for K-12 public schools. That’s about a 15% increase, equivalent to a $680 increase in the state’s per-student funding formula, but the budget will still need to go through the Senate and Governor before it’s finalized.
The topic of education funding has been at the forefront of the legislature this session, and in the Kenai Peninsula Borough and school district. The district has been projecting a $13 million deficit for the next school year, and approved pool closures, cuts to theater staff and changes in the teacher-student ratio to make up the gap, including cutting more than 10 teachers. The district — like many around the state — is counting on a boost from the legislature to avoid having to follow through on those cuts.
“We are continually asked to do more, and we’re doing more with less every year,” said KPBSD Board of Education member Zen Kelly, who serves as chair of the finance committee.
He said the one-time funding boost in the House budget is a good temporary measure, but won’t solve long-term woes.
“We will be in the same situation next year of dealing with not knowing what our allocation is from the state when we start drafting our budget in October for the following year,” he said.
The Senate is considering a longer-term solution. Representatives from the borough and school district have been strong advocates for an increase to the BSA, or Base Student Allocation: the amount school districts get from the state per student. The borough assembly unanimously passed a resolution asking the legislature for what it called a “meaningful” increase to the BSA in March.
Still, the proposal has generated a lot of discussion, and confusion. The Kenai City Council had a fraught conversation about a similar resolution earlier this month, and ultimately killed it.
Over the past couple weeks, the Senate Finance Committee heard public testimony on Senate Bill 52, which would increase the BSA by $1,000 this year, an additional $350 next year and create an inflation-based increase the following year.
The vast majority of those testifying in Senate Finance urged passage of a BSA increase, and many asked for sustained increases going forward. Four members of the Kenai district’s Board of Education testified, and others still were queued up to speak but cut for time.
“Without an increase, KPBSD is looking at cutting 34 positions,” which would include support staff and teaching staff, Board President Debbie Cary testified. “Supporting Senate Bill 52 will not only allow districts to reduce their deficits, but also allow districts to fulfill their goals and strategic plans.”
Fabian, the Nikiski principal, also showed support for a sustained, inflation-proofed BSA.
“Stable, predictable funding is key to improving student outcomes by stabilizing schools and reducing turnover,” she said.
Kelly said that turnover is a key reason the district is so desperate for sustained BSA increases. Among the 34 positions the district may have to cut, 11 are teaching positions. He said the district needs to know whether it can renew those contracts by the end of the school year next month.
Kelly said they’ll be the first priority once the legislature settles on a number.
“It’s so hard right now to find quality teachers,” he said. “That’s our biggest impact, and it will be what I, as finance chair, will push the board to do first, as soon as we have knowledge of any increase at all, is to retain those certified positions.”
Then, the district’s finance committee will decide on what else to bring back into the budget, depending on what that legislative funding boost looks like. In addition to pools and theater techs, the district has approved cuts to athletic directors, student success liaisons and extracurricular travel funds.
“There is still time to save these programs, there is still time to keep our pools and theaters open, to reinstitute the reductions we made in staffing at our high school and middle schools,” Kelly said. “But, we can’t stop letting the legislature know how important it is.”
Action on the budget is now in the Senate. The two chambers need to reach a compromise before May 17, when the constitution requires the legislature to adjourn.
This story was supported by the Alaska Center for Excellence in Journalism's Legislative Reporter Exchange Program.