Borough will ask state to hold schools harmless for enrollment decline

Sep 16, 2020

Credit Sabine Poux/KDLL

The Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly will ask the state to count the number of students enrolled in the school district last year, rather than this year, to determine how much funding the district will get in the 2021 fiscal year.

The assembly voted unanimously to put forth the recommendation at its meeting Tuesday.

The state uses student counts every year to determine how much funding public schools should receive the following year. The count period is in October. This year, however, there are about 1,700 fewer students enrolled in district schools than last year, since many parents have opted for their kids to take classes through a homeschool program. And that number is still fluctuating. 

The district receives 10% less funding for each student enrolled in homeschool. Using student counts from this fall could lead to a revenue shortfall of almost $2.4 million, said Assistant Superintendent Dave Jones at Tuesday’s meeting.

“We’ve increased about 850 students in our Connections homeschool program,” he said, “which is good, except that when we estimate a budget and look at a budget moving forward, that student in a neighborhood, brick-and-mortar school is worth a lot more than that student in the Connections homeschool program because the neighborhood students are put through cost factors and increases to represent costs that we experience that homeschool students aren’t.”

At Monday night’s Board of Education meeting, Superintendent John O’Brien said the revenue shortfall from the drop in enrollment would lead to “reductions to staff and/or programming.”

Even if students are to return to the classroom over the next few weeks, as families become more comfortable with in-person classes, it might still be too late for those students to be counted for FY21. This year’s count is scheduled to start Sept. 25 and last into October, said Borough Assembly Vice President Hall Smalley at the meeting.

“The problem is funding goes with the number count in October, middle of October,” Smalley said. “And if those students do return in the numbers that we anticipate that they will statewide, that’s a significant loss of revenue, because the money doesn’t come with the students when they come back. That money is gone.”

Smalley said the school district spoke to Department of Education Commissioner Michael Johnson about basing FY21 funding on last year’s enrollment, rather than this year’s, and Johnson said it sounded like a viable alternative. 

Rochelle Lindley, the information officer for the Alaska Department of Education, said school funding formulas are laid out in statute, so any changes would need to first go through the state Legislature.