Education funding. It’s the single biggest expense for the Kenai Peninsula Borough, and paying those costs with current levels of revenue is getting more and more difficult. Last year, the school district ran a deficit of about $2 million. That could be the case again this year, with a projected deficit between $1.3 million.
The district’s fund balance has picked up the slack for several years, being spent down more than $5 million since fiscal year 2013. And if last year’s budget debate is any indication, the district shouldn’t expect much relief from the borough.
Mayor Charlie Pierce vetoed $650,000 last year that would have added counseling and other student support services, and the assembly upheld that veto. Pierce told a joint meeting of the Kenai and Soldotna Chambers of Commerce this week that if schools are going to get more money, the onus is on residents to approve it.
“This is the thing; we’ve flat-funded schools for the last two years. We’re projected to flat fund them again. We’ve got a half-percent inflationary growth funding for schools, you got (school district contract) negotiations going on and everybody wants more, more, more. They want you to pay more. You need to decide whether you want to do it or not. At some point, you know, you’ve got some options we gave. We gave the assembly 15 different options as ways to raise additional revenue. Put it on the ballot. See if it passes. If you don’t pass it at the ballot box, the mayor has no other choice but to cut expenses. I can live within that. I can deal with that.”
Of course, the assembly can raise revenue on its own, but the typical 5-4 divide on tight issues doesn’t usually swing in that direction. However, that won’t likely stop the school district from asking for what it thinks it will need to cover costs. The vetoes issued by the mayor last year prevented the school district from investing in more counselors, especially for students in lower grades. Superintendent Sean Dusek says the need for those services isn’t going away, and they’ll be looking to bring that staff in, even if it means joining with other organizations in the community.
“We want to target mental health but what we’re finding is Peninsula Community Health Services and some of our partners have open positions as well, so we’d be competing with them. We’re trying to work with PCHS, with mental health departments down in Homer, Seaview Community Services in Seward. We have to enhance our partnerships. Because everyone wants the same counselors and so we’re going to have to share and how are we going to make that work?”
Especially in the lower grades, Dusek says, the need for mental health services is essential in making sure students are able to focus on the classroom instead of issues at home or elsewhere.
“Ideally, we would have, at our larger elementary schools, a full time counselor on staff to meet the needs of our students with those ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experience) issues and to help our staff address those issues. Because, like I’ve said before, if a kid isn’t ready to learn, we have to get them ready to learn first; overcoming either hunger or safety or mental health issues, before they can learn. And sometimes that also impacts the rest of the class, so how do we overcome that so we can move forward with the academics?”
The answer to that is unlikely to come from government, either state or borough. And adding to the challenge is ongoing contract negotiations between the district and its employees unions. Dusek requested regular meetings beginning next month between the borough administration and the district, as were held last year, to work through the budget process.
This week’s number: 3
As in the number of years the state’s current economic recession has lasted. It’s also just the third recession in the state’s history, and the longest. But state economist Neal Fried recently told the non-profit Resource Development Council that it’s not the worst recession in state history. That dubious honor goes to a period in the mid-80’s that was also marked by low oil prices. Beginning in 1988, steady job growth was the story for the next two decades, until the bottom fell out of the national economy in 2008. Modest gains in employment or at least a leveling off of job losses has been occuring in key industries like construction, which saw 300 jobs added this year after losing five times that many last year. And while the oil industry continues to shed jobs, it’s doing so at a slower rate, down 600 this year compared to more than 2,000 job losses in 2017.