The Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly and administration from the borough school district held a budget work session Tuesday afternoon. The money struggles the district has been dealing with the past several years don’t look to have much relief coming in the next budget cycle.
What the school district’s budget eventually looks like will depend a lot on what happens in Juneau. Of course, that’s the case every year, but the new Dunleavy administration has promised big cuts across the board, including to education.
Assistant superintendent Dave Jones says the borough’s ability to fund the district could be affected by the way cuts are done at the state level. If the legislature cuts the base student allocation, the backbone number of how a district gets funded, that would reduce the basic need of the district which would in turn reduce how much the borough could chip in.
“If the legislature funds it at the BSA level, it goes to the governor and he vetoes it, then that still (shows) a basic need. The funding has been vetoed (but) your ability to give us funding is not reduced. So as we watch this process evolve through the legislature this year, that’s going to be important to see," Jones said.
Under the rosiest of projections, which is to say more or less flat funding from the state and a maximum contribution from the borough, the school district could actually have revenues exceed expenditures by a couple hundred thousand dollars. But Borough Mayor Charlie Pierce has indicated he won’t be supporting a higher contribution.
Despite revenue struggles, the school district still has needs to address. Chief among them is finding the money to hire more counselors. More and more, educators are able to recognize signs of trauma students are experiencing away from school, and that trauma needs to be addressed before a student can really focus on learning.
The district would like to see about $600,000 invested in new hires for counselors and other mental health professionals. There have been attempts to share that cost with other organizations, like Peninsula Community Health Services, but it’s a small pool of candidates, says superintendent Sean Dusek.
“We continue to pursue the partnership, but there hasn’t been a (development) where (PCHS says) we have four social workers we want to place in your schools. It’s like when we talked last spring; we wanted to hire a mental health counselor. Then we discovered we’d be competing with PCHS to hire that person. That’s why we pursued those partnerships. They just don’t have the people.”
That prompted a question from Mayor Pierce.
“What did they do back when we went to school? How did they handle the disfunction in the family...did they ignore it?”
The short answer is, yeah. Basically.
And Dusek pointed to significantly higher rates of graduation as proof that giving those students that extra attention makes a difference.
“As a son of an alcoholic, who barely graduated, I was able to work through a lot of that without a lot of support. But several of my friends didn’t make it. So we’ve moved up from about a 60 percent graduation rate to...over 85 percent. So, we’ve been able to keep kids in school longer with these supports," Dusek said.
There won’t likely be any hard numbers out from the borough in regards to school funding until Governor Dunleavy presents his budget next month. The assembly and district administration will meet again for another joint work session in March.