Kenai Peninsula Borough School District Superintendent John O’Brien is optimistic going into this budget season, with Gov. Mike Dunleavy proposing flat funding for K-12 education in Alaska, and Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Charlie Peirce saying he’ll support local funding to the cap.
O’Brien addressed the Soldotna Chamber of Commerce on Wednesday.
“I’m very hopeful for 2020 I really feel we’re in a much better place than we were last year,” he said. “And I hope that we see good results and good things happening for our schools and our communities in the new year.”
That doesn’t mean the district is without challenges, however. Flat funding from the state is certainly better than the $20.8 million dollars the school district stood to lose last year if the governor had succeeded in his proposed budget cut to education, but it does not keep up with ever-increasing costs, especially in health insurance. Nor does it solve the maintenance problems the district is facing.
“The average age of our buildings is well over 20 years. We have many of our buildings that are 40 to 50 years old,” he said. “And we have a lot of deferred maintenance and capital projects that needs to be addressed.”
O’Brien says the district and borough will work toward putting together a bond proposal for $30 to $40 million to address maintenance needs at school facilities across the borough. It would also cover the 15 percent local match that’s required to access the state money already approved by the Legislature to build a new school in Kachemak Selo.
The district is looking at a $1.6 million budget deficit next year, but O’Brien says the school board has indicated a willingness to cover the shortfall with fund balance, while adding six elementary school counselor positions.
“I believe that if we address the social/emotional learning needs of our students when they’re elementary students,” he said. “And we teach them those resiliency skills and those coping skills, by the time they get to middle school and high school they will be better equipped to deal with life’s curve balls or when something bad happens in their lives. And if we are going to increase our scores on standardized tests we need to address the underlying conditions for learning, that includes emotional and mental health.”
Academically, O’Brien had good news to share. Reading, math, language arts and science assessments show KPBSD students outperforming other large districts in Alaska and being at least in the middle of the pack compared to the rest of the country. But he says there’s still work to be done, especially targeting reading.
“We, as a district, still have work that we need to do in that area, too,” he said. “We’re well versed, we have great curriculum, we have great teachers. We’re beefing up our professional development in that area and I expect to see some real improvements over the next couple of years.”
Continuing the good news, O’Brien announced that Joanna Fonkert in the Homer Connections Office and Jason Daniels at Kalifornsky Beach Elementary School are recognized in the BP Classrooms of Excellence program and will receive grants to continue their STEM projects. Principal Kari Dendurent at Homer Middle School was named the Region 3 Principal of the Year, and Dan Beck, assistant principal at Kenai Middle School, is the Region 3 and statewide Assistant Principal of the Year, and is in the running for the national-level honor. And Tustumena Elementary, in Kasilof, has been named a Title One Distinguished School.
KPBSD community budget meetings are coming up in February in Kenai, Soldotna, Homer and Seward. Find dates and times on the district’s website. Click on the link to the events calendar.