Education will see significant reductions in funding if the Senate’s operating budget stands. Proposed cuts will affect districts around the state, including here on the Kenai Peninsula.
The Legislature is going into overtime. At the heart is a disagreement between the House and Senate about how to fix the state’s fiscal crisis. Each side has proposed its own operating budget and they look very different.
“Well, it’s a negotiation process," said Rep. Paul Seaton (R-Homer) during KBBI's legislative call-in on Friday. "So, we’ll have a conference committee appointed soon and I will be one of the members of the conference committee, as well as Sen. Hoffman on the other side who is the chair of the operating budget over there. Then we will sit down and negotiate on our various budgets. Same budget, just two different visions of what Alaska should be.”
The House’s budget calls for a continuation for status quo funding for the university and K-12 education, meaning they’d get next year what they got this year.
On the other hand, the Senate’s budget calls for deep cuts to things like transportation, health and social services, the university system, and K-12 education.
“We really appreciate the work that the legislature is doing. We ask them to come together. It’s getting more difficult right now as time continues to pass," said Kenai Peninsula Borough School District spokesperson Pegge Erkeneff.
She said it’s those possible cuts that have the district worried.
“We’re holding positions that we can’t hire for and we’re losing good people because we [won't] have the opportunity to hire them and offer positions if the funding [doesn't] come through at status quo," Erkeneff said. "So, the uncertainty is getting difficult this late in the school year when we’re starting school in four months.”
The formula funding outlined in the Senate budget shows a 5 percent cut to the base student allocation across all districts, meaning every district would be cut at the same rate, though not necessarily by the same dollar figure. On the peninsula, 1 percent equals about $1 million or 10 teachers.
The base student allocation (BSA) is determined by a district-wide count of students that happens every year over about 20 days. The number of students counted determines how much funding the district needs to receive.
“And that formula links or relates to what our borough can provide," she said. "And based on that amount, there’s a percentage that’s a minimum amount that the borough is required by law to fund to the schools and there’s a maximum allowable amount that the borough can contribute. So, the borough can work within that range and the range is determined based on what the state gives through the foundation formula and the BSA.”
She explained that means two things. First, if there’s a cut to the statewide BSA, the school will lose additional funding through the borough. Second, if cuts are made to other types of state education funding and not the BSA, secondary losses could potentially be avoided.
“So, when we look at that 5 percent reduction that’s being proposed at this time by the Senate, that’s an additional deficit of $5.29 million to the district and it links to a second cut of $1.21 million by reducing what the borough could also contribute, so that cut of 5 percent is actually $6.5 million," she said. "You can do the math.”
The math is about 65 teachers. That’s why the district is holding onto those positions right now, unable to hire in. If status quo funding continues, the teachers could in theory be retained. If the cuts go through, positions will likely be lost.
“Our school district is known throughout the state as being excellent and we get great results. But, we’ve also been putting a lot of things in place for innovations, for personalized learning, for meeting the needs of every student that walks through the door," she said.
Fewer teachers means a higher student to teacher ratio, more kids per class, less one-on-one time. It also means potential cuts to sports or extracurricular activities.
These proposed reductions come on the heels of already tight times. The district has seen more than $8 million in cuts over its last four budget cycles, since FY 15.
“I think that we’ve kept the reductions as far away from the classroom as we can, so the general public doesn’t really understand reductions that have been made," she said.
Those have mainly been through increasing efficiency, and in terms of staffing, cutting positions in the district office and not refilling positions left open, in some cases. At this point, she said, there’s not much left to cut.
“We need to hear if people are willing to pay a sales tax, or an income tax, or take less in their PFD, but we know we have a fiscal crisis in our state that needs to get solved. And we want to continue to provide a high level of service," she said. "These kids get one chance – the ones that are in the classes next year and today, so we want to provide as much as possible for those students to be successful and that includes funding education.”
The House and Senate will continue to hash out their budget options as they go into an extended session this week.