Times have been tight in recent years. The district has run through most its savings trying to bridge multi-million dollar budget gaps the past three years. At a budget work session with the school board this week, Assistant Superintendent Dave Jones said despite cutting administration staff through attrition and other means, cuts in the classroom still loom large.
Without needed revenue, the ratio of teachers to students is bound to go down, increasing the challenge of delivering quality instruction. Last minute state funding helped to stave off some job cuts during the last budget cycle, but Jones says that’s not a permanent solution.
“Last year, the Legislature at the start talked about making early decisions on revenue. It ended up that at the very end of the legislative session, they said ‘ok, here’s $20 million in one-time money.’ For us, that was $1.4 million, which was great because it allowed us to replace 11 and a half teaching positions into the budget that had been reduced. So that was great, but it’s one-time money. It means that we were able to replace those for one year. And so it means that looking at the FY20 budget, we’re not sure that that money will be available again, and so we may be right back to reducing those positions that we reinstated with it.”
There’s a bill on the table that, if approved, would dole out $30 million to schools across the state this year. The Kenai’s share of that would be a little more than $700,000 in addition to what was appropriated last year. Now we’re talking close to an extra $2 million from the state. And every cent counts when you’re on a streak of seven straight years of deficit spending and a fund balance worth less than a lot of homes on the Kenai river. Jones says potential budget cuts are edging closer to the classroom all the time. More than $600,000 was targeted in last year’s budget to trim from administration staff and other expenses like extra-curricular travel.
“I don’t believe there are items left that aren’t related to instruction. It’s the degree to which they are related.”
But that extra state funding is contingent upon approval by the next legislature, which we’ll learn more about on November 7th.
“At this point in time, we’re intently watching the elections will be occurring in November. I think that depending on which candidates are in, we could see a large swing from potentially new funds to potentially big cuts. So I think, people, if they support education, they need to look at the candidates and support the candidates that support education," Jones said.
Another variable, as always, is student enrollment. Counts aren’t officially in until the end of the month, but the trends are interesting. Overall enrollment is down, due in some part to more homeschooling through the Connections program, while enrollment for special needs students is up.
“What’s happened...is our regular education numbers have dropped, but our intensive, special education numbers have increased. And the way the formula funds those, they fund it at about 11 times the regular ed student.”
The budget process is just getting underway. Discussions will continue through the winter and final votes by the school board and then the borough assembly will happen in June.
This week’s number: 12,500
That’s the total number of job losses in Alaska according to a new report from ICER. The University of Alaska-based Institute of Social and Economic Research finds that Alaska is on the tail end of a nearly half-decade recession, with overall employment levels at nearly 97 percent of what they were in those halcyon, 100-dollar-a-barrel pre-recession days of 2014.