Assembly votes to increase school funding, for now

Apr 18, 2019

Linda Hutchings, of Soldotna, addresses the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly during its annual meeting in Seward on Tuesday night

More than 100 people were at the Seward High School auditorium for last night’s Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly meeting. The assembly heard more than three hours of public testimony on two different education funding items.

The first was an ordinance that will appropriate $2.4 million in supplemental funding to allow the district to begin offering contracts to nontenured teachers. The assembly cast a 5-4 vote to approve that funding, but it will be subject to a potential veto by borough Mayor Charlie Pierce. When asked by assembly member Kelly Cooper if he intended to issue a veto, he said he wasn’t ready to speak to it. He was ready to speak to the reasons the borough and the school district find themselves in this situation, pointing to yet-to-be resolved budget drama in Juneau and his predecessor, Mike Navarre.

“You’re hedging,” Pierce told the assembly. “When you make a decision or you spend more money than you know whether you’re going to have or not, you’re hedging. Navarre, two years ago, three years ago, gave the school district some extra money ... and we’ve been deficit spending the last six out of seven budgets. ... We’ve crunched a lot of numbers, we’ve put a lot of models together of the what ifs. ... I’m not going to hedge on the future. I’m not going to sit there and throw support behind something that we can’t guarantee. Right now, there’s too many unknowns that are coming out of Juneau.”

Later, when a resolution came up setting the floor for district funding, most of the same arguments for and against that have been heard over the last few months were brought up again. The mayor has proposed funding the district to the tune of $47.3 million. That’s well under the anticipated cap of around $52.5 million. And a reduction compared to last year of $2.4 million.

The assembly voted 7-2 to adopt the resolution without trying to change the amount. One of two reluctant yes votes, Dale Bagely said the final number for the school district’s appropriation will be winnowed out during the budget hearings for the borough next month and into June.

“At this time, I’m willing to do the supplemental (funding), which we passed, do the mayor’s resolution at the amount that he’s proposed and leave this battle for the budget because that’s where the battle needs to happen. Our budget gets introduced the first meeting in May and it will be up for enactment in June. I’m OK with doing more funding than what we did last year. What that number is, I don’t know. We’ll do it, but it needs to be done through the budget process and not here.”

If Tuesday night was any indication, finalizing the borough budget could also mean another round of talks about raising new revenue through a number means. But several tax proposals that would help shore up the budgets of both the borough and the school district have met a thoroughly unsupportive public at the polls in recent years.