Two education-funding bills are working their way through Alaska’s Legislature. Both aim to wrap up education funding early during budgeting process so that school districts can make informed hiring decisions in the spring. The Kenai Peninsula Borough School District (KPBSD) was in limbo last year when the budget didn’t pass until summer. Now, the district is anxious for a timelier confirmation of its funding.
KPBSD needs to let teachers know by the end of May if the district can hire them back the following year. Assistant Superintendent Dave Jones said in a Facebook Live presentation that when those deadlines passed last year, the school district didn’t know how much staff they could afford.
“Last year is kind of where we don't want to be when the Legislature didn't pass a budget till late June, we had a number of positions that were unfilled and we had to wait until July to fill those positions,” said Jones.
KPBSD held off on filling 30 teaching positions, and the school district estimates it lost at least five qualified teachers due to the uncertainty.
“The sooner that we know what our funding is going to be for the coming school year, the sooner we can retain or give contracts to the teachers that are currently in our district and then if people retire we'll be able to go out and fill our open positions so the sooner we could go out and do that, the better," Jones said.
Two bills in the House and Senate would help solve that problem, requiring legislators to pass education funding before other parts of the budget.
House Bill 287 would apply only to this session. It proposes flat funding for the 2018-2019 school year, which Gov. Bill Walker has also called for. Kenai Peninsula Borough School District Superintendent Sean Dusek noted that will require a three-quarter vote to access that money for education funding.
Dusek is eager for the bills to pass. The other education funding bill, Senate Bill 131, wouldn’t change anything this year, but is similar to its counterpart in the House in that it asks lawmakers to pass education funding by April 1 and this deadline would apply indefinitely.
“What if they don't make it by April 1?” Dusek said. “You know what if they don't decide on the budget, what happens? But it's a start.”
Both bills have vocal support from the public. Homer resident and retired high school teacher, Alex Koplin, testified on the Senate bill in January.
“If the foundation for funding is not in place, the school districts are floundering in setting up a positive environment for the following year,” Koplin said. “It is your responsibility and the citizens to help let schools know what you're willing to contribute instead of waiting until the 11th hour to tell them.”
But even if a bill securing early funding does pass, there are still other financial concerns. The school district is looking at about a three million dollar deficit. The district says one of the main drivers of debt was health care costs. This financial strain has required the district to make cuts.
Assistant superintendent Jones explained on Facebook Live:
"There’s 13 fewer positions at the district office than there were four years ago," he said. "Last year one of the items that came up was we could look at custodial costs in the buildings, following that, we reduced seven custodial positions."
Right now, the school district is having conversations about what to do with the deficit this year and how it will try to keep those cuts from the classroom.
“The board is committed to use $1.3 million, that means we're looking at how are we going to deal with two million dollars," Jones said.
That $1.3 million he’s referring to is coming from the general savings account.
Jones will be conducting budget forums across the district to discuss this deficit. He will be at Homer High School on Tuesday, Feb. 20. In March, the school district plans to give the board recommendations on any reductions and in April, the board will pass a budget.