Parent Pushes for More Access to School Budget Process

Ariel Van Cleave

     Officials with the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District have been holding meetings to discuss next year’s spending plan. The district is currently facing a $4.5 million budget shortfall and wants the public to be aware of the potential cuts. During the meeting in Homer Tuesday night, one parent expressed concern over her lack of involvement in the district’s overall discussion of next year’s budget.

     The district uses money from the state and borough to cover costs throughout its schools. The majority of those funds, about 90 percent actually, go toward paying teachers and staff. The district’s school board has been slicing funds from pots of money here and there, but it hasn’t been enough so far. So that biggest pool of money could see the biggest cuts. 

     State lawmakers in Juneau have been discussing the idea of increasing the Base Student Allocation, which is the per-student amount the district receives. And KPBSD Assistant Superintendent Dave Jones said increasing the BSA by $268 would actually solve the funding problem the district is facing. 

     At this point, Governor Sean Parnell has mentioned a roughly $200 increase over the next three years. Some lawmakers are pushing for $400. But the KPBSD can’t rely on any of that. And Jones said even if the borough contributes its maximum amount, the district will still be in the red for a few million dollars.

     “This is the first year that our budget deficit of $4.5 million is greater than what the borough can give us. It’s the first year that we’ve been in that position that they can’t ride in and be the hero and save us. That’s significant,” he said.

     The most the borough can fund is around $46 million. So Jones said it’s possible the school board will use fund balance, which is kind of like savings, to make up the difference. 

     During the Q and A section of the budget meeting in Homer, Brett Glidden wondered about the possibility of talking to teachers and staff about taking a small pay cut for next school year. She’s a parent with a student at Paul Banks Elementary. But Jones pointed out those types of pay discussions happened over the course of two-years for contract negotiations. 

     “I sat at the negotiations table with those people and said we can’t afford 2 percent. If we go to 2 percent the only place we’ll be able to cut is in staffing. Guess where we went to? We went to 2 percent,” Jones said.

     School Board Member Suni Hilts said the school district is unable to go back to talk pay cuts because the ink has dried on the contracts. But Glidden persisted and pointed out that talking to union leaders and those on the front lines about the worst case scenario, like cutting teaching positions, might be the better than making those big cuts. 

     Glidden also said she’s calling for more discourse and transparency with the school district. 

     “I’m tired of coming to meetings where I’m educated on what’s already been done.”

     She said she feels like she’s not been able to participate enough in the budget process. The school board has one regular meeting in Soldotna each month that is set up to stream online. But all the other work sessions throughout that day where specific committees meet, like the budget committee, are not recorded or set up for streaming. Minutes are not usually taken either. 

     In August of last year, KBBI and KDLL News reached out to the district asking about finding a way to record those work sessions. And School Board President Joe Arness and Superintendent Doctor Steve Atwater met to talk about it. According to an email from Aug. 22, the KBBI/KDLL News Team was told “The Board and administration sit at tables during the worksessions and we do not have the ability to wire sound to those tables… audio will not be available for the worksessions.”

     The KPBSD also had an all-day budget meeting to discuss the district’s options in November. It was held in Soldotna, not available for streaming or recorded. When that meeting was brought up Tuesday night, the conversation became heated between Glidden and Jones.

     Glidden said she feels like she’s missed the boat for including her input on the budget. According to a calendar provided by the district, the school board will be approving its spending plan April 14. 

     “I’ve read everything that’s happened and what’s happening and when it needs to be adopted. I don’t see an opportunity between now and April 14 to affect change in what has been proposed. If I am wrong, please correct me,” Glidden said.

     There is one more regular meeting for the school board before that April 14 deadline. And because of the way the budget calendar is set up, the board will not know its concrete funding levels from the state or the borough. All the revenue estimates are based on funding from years past.