School district hopes for full funding but braces for possible cuts

Apr 5, 2018

The Kenai Peninsula Borough School District has been working on the 2019 budget for months, but now it’s out of the district's hands.  

The school board passed the budget over to the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly Tuesday, asking the assembly to fully fund education at the maximum amount allowed. The district requested about $2 million more than last year. It said it needs the money to close a $3 million budget deficit. However it may be a tough sell.

The roughly $143 million spending plan proposes some cuts, but none in the classroom, something the district has been working to avoid over the past few years. To close about a $3 million deficit, the district is asking for $2 million more than it received last year and plans to contribute roughly $1 million from reserves.

School Board Member Mike Illg said it’s a no brainer to get behind:

“Sit down with every single one of our 8900 kids, they would want full funding too, and that’s a fact,” he said.

The budget passed with two school board members opposing it. School Board member Lynn Hohl, who was against the spending plan, said she was concerned about smaller schools following the same pupil-to-teacher formulas as larger schools.

However, one of the biggest opponents of the budget doesn’t sit on the board. Borough Mayor Charlie Pierce spoke during the public comment section.  He said  the borough is also underfunded.

We got pink slips too,” he said. “Here’s what I want to tell you about your pink slips—you own them. They’re yours. You have  fund balance. You don't lay teachers off? Take an extra million out of your fund balance and don't lay them off.”

He talked about how hard it is to fund the school district.

I'm tired of hearing I don't like kids,” he said. “I could have left the money in the Land Trust Fund and cut your budget. I can give you what I can.”

Although Pierce has adamantly opposed increasing education funding, the decision will ultimately be up to the assembly. The district presented the budget to the assembly Tuesday, which has 30 days to respond.

Countering Mayor Pierce, District spokesperson Pegge Erkeneff said the district’s request is reasonable, and the district has made cuts where it can.

“The school district has demonstrated over the last four years, over 12 million dollars in reductions and use of our savings account,” she said. “The school district believes we are a great investment for our youth, we are performing well.”

The district has cut custodial staff, administrative positions and other jobs. The district said if the budget isn’t funded to the cap, future cuts will move into the classroom.

“There would be an increase of one student in classes in grades four to six, one and a half students in middle school grades and two and a half students in high school to meet a two million dollar deficit,” she said.

That means that we will lose two teachers, we may lose a librarian aid and a lot of secretaries and support staff,” said Homer High Principal Douglas Waclawski.

He said if the school is forced to make cuts, it would likely offer fewer English, Spanish and math classes.

“We were able to break a couple remedial math classes to get about 15 kids in a class which is pretty nice that those kids need extra help but we will not be able to do that,” he said.

The school would also likely cut electives such as P.E., natural resources or culinary arts. Waclawski said forget about new classes.

We were thinking of trying to start some other classes too like creative writing or a communications class and stuff like that,” he said. “That's just not going to happen now,” he said.

But it’s not just the borough assembly that the district is waiting on. Erkeneff said it’s also the state Legislature.

Well the Senate has received the budget from the house and so right now, we're waiting,” she said. "There's a couple of education-related bills but the district is waiting to see what our state legislators will do and also balancing the budget. There's a lot of fiscal uncertainty.”

Erkeneff said the district expects flat funding from the Legislature.