The school district is getting a jump on budgeting for next year, and it’s starting out on a low note.
The Kenai Peninsula Borough School District is bracing for the loss of about 100 students from its projected enrollment this year. That will mean more than empty seats on the bus or fewer sandwiches in the lunch line. Since most state funding is allocated per student, that means less money than the district expected for next year’s budget.
“We did put our budget together based on that projected enrollment, which means our expenditures will be right around $138 million, and we expected to use about $321,000 in savings," said Superintendent Sean Dusek. "But we’re probably going to have right around 100 fewer students than we expected, and that is going to be a direct correlation on the amount of money that we’ll have to use in savings.”
Dusek addressed parents and school site councils across the district during a community budget meeting held at 22 schools Tuesday night. Dusek said there was a spike in enrollment in 2015, probably due to excitement over the prospect of a natural gas pipeline being built, but the higher enrollment didn’t last.
Since 2012, the district has been dipping into savings to cover shortfalls in its budget, even while cutting about $7 million since fiscal year 2015.
“We’ve been able to handle it because we had a healthy savings account, we’ve made some small reductions, we’ve been fiscally responsible but we are continuing to see a deficit year after year,” Dusek said.
The district considers itself lucky to have escaped a cut by the Legislature last year, but Dusek said that flat funding doesn’t keep up with cost increases. The cost of health care, in particular, continues to grow.
“Even if we get flat funding, there is going to have to be cuts made or more savings is going to have to be used,” he said.
Jeremiah Hamilton attended the budget meeting at Kenai Central High School, where he serves on the site council. He did the math of rising costs, flat or decreasing funding and continued deficit spending.
“Talk around it all day long but we’re not going to get more money this year from the state," Hamilton said. "At what point do we as a district go, ‘OK, what are the other drastic measures that we can do?’ And if those conversations have been had and if they have, what are they?”
School consolidation was one of the measures discussed. That’s not likely, though, says Dave Jones, assistant superintendent of KPBSD Instructional Support. The way the state’s funding structure works, it wouldn’t save the district any money to reduce the number of schools it operates. So what does that leave? Well, the largest percentage of the district’s budget is spent on personnel. Jones says they’re committed to keeping cuts away from classrooms as much as possible. But that’s getting more and more challenging.
“Tonight’s the start of those conversations," Jones said. "We want to let people know where we’re at, what we’re expecting. What we came to listen and hear is, 'What do people think? What are the things that we need to look at doing and what are people willing to look at?'”
The district’s budget presentations are available on the KPBSD website.