Facing Shortfall, School District Looks Toward Legislature

Ariel Van Cleave

     As the legislative season gets underway in Alaska, the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District is keeping an eye on a few proposals; especially those that involve funding from the state.

     State school funding has been stagnant the last few years. The Base Student Allocation, which is the money the state offers to districts for each student, has been holding steady at about $5,700 per student. The KPBSD has used a mix of cuts and savings to keep programs afloat, but Superintendent Dr. Steve Atwater said that can’t go on forever. He and other school officials will make a push for more funding with lawmakers in Juneau.

     “We really need them to step up and provide us with some more money, or we’re going to be hurting this year. But more importantly, we’re going to be hurting next year. I think the effect will be felt in more impact next year while we’re going through the budgeting process,” he said.

     Administrators and school board members have started budget talks for next school year already. The district is currently facing a $3.4 million shortfall. Atwater said the board has already made about $1.5 million in reductions.

     “I know that ours is not as big as Anchorage… but we certainly have a big deficit that we need to close. We also need the borough to increase its funding to us to help close it. So we’re in an awkward position of trying to do what we’re doing today next year, and it would cost us a lot more money,” he said.  

     The Anchorage School District announced earlier this month that it will likely cut more than 200 teachers and staff from its payroll to put its budget back into the black. Atwater said at this point, that isn’t the case for the KPBSD. The school board wants to wait for word from lawmakers and borough officials about funding before making more severe cuts, which would be closer to May. 

     Education funding was a big piece of Governor Sean Parnell’s State of the State address this month. He mentioned he would be willing to increase funding as long as lawmakers gave parents and students more choices in which schools they could attend. He also wants to loosen up restrictions on state funding for education.

     “I urge the House and Senate to vigorously debate the provisions of SJR 9 and move it to the people for a vote. On this question, on whether parents ought to have a greater say in their child’s education, it’s time legislators let Alaskans decide,” he said.

     Senate Joint Resolution 9 would basically rewrite the Alaska Constitution to allow public funding to go to private schools. That measure can’t move forward without two-thirds of the legislature approving it and then a majority vote from the people. There’s not been much support for this option from school officials across the state. 

     Parnell also pointed out he’d consider an increase in funds if there were changes to what he considers “restrictive state laws” regarding charter schools. Another condition was to repeal and replace the high school exit exam. And Atwater said that’s something he and Parnell agree on.

     “That’s the test that kids are required to pass to get out of high school. I recognize that the exam has run its course. It’s not really doing what it was intended to do. Ninety-six percent of our kids pass the test and it’s really not an impediment to graduate. It’s more of just an obstacle that they have to jump over,” Atwater said.

     Parnell mentioned he would like to replace the current test with a college entrance exam like the ACT or a job skills test. He also wants to see consideration for increasing the amount of residential regional schools like Mount Edgecumbe in Sitka, as well as a focus on technology in all schools. 

     This will likely be an education-centric legislative session. A group called the Sustainable Education Task Force recently released a two-page draft report about the future of state schools funding. Parnell based many of his conditions for a boost in funding on the recommendations from the group. One item in the draft report pointed out the current situation is not sustainable for the long term. State Representative Paul Seaton said more information is needed before that sort of statement can be made. 

     “Trying to establish that we can or can’t afford something when we don’t really know what our projected budget is becomes problematic,” he said.

     Seaton has served on the education committee for the last 12 years. The Sustainable Education Task Force is expected to have more hearings throughout this year’s session. And according to the bill that created the group, it will disband in 2015.