By Heidi Zemach for SCN
Some 21 Seward residents, parents, teachers and administrators looked at the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District’s 2013-2014 preliminary budget, and weighed in on the process from their own perspectives. SPDSD Assistant Superintendent Dave Jones presented three budget documents Tuesday Feb 19 at the Seward High School library, including the hefty 193-page FY 14 Preliminary General Fund Budget, and explained many of their details and the district’s assumptions. KPBSD Board of Education President Joe Arness also attended the community budget meeting, along with Laurie Olson, Director of Finance. Similar meetings are being held this month at Skyview and Homer High Schools.
Those who attended brought along a variety of concerns about school staffing levels, reductions in teachers, fewer class offerings or electives next year. The preliminary budget shows Seward Elementary receiving an increase of .4FTE, or under half of a new position, Seward High increasing by half a position, or .5FTE, and Seward Middle losing a quarter of a position, and one- third of the administrator’s position.
The district anticipates serving 8,873 students at its 43 schools next year, Jones said. The General Fund expenditure budget is $148 million. It is based on student enrollment, and uses existing staffing formulas for each grade and school. That number also includes step increases, and one-percent salary increases anticipated for FYs 13 and 14 that reflect the district’s last offer in contract negotiations. It also includes the anticipated employer-paid share of health care at $1,350 per employee per month, and expected retirement benefits.
The district’s revenue budget of $143 million falls short of the expenditure budget, however. When additional transfers to other funds are made, such as for food service and Community Theater, and even if some of the district’s Fund Balance, designated for self-insurance is used, there’s still going to be a deficit of $3.7 million, Jones said. Balancing the budget may therefore require greater spending cuts, increased funding at the state and borough level, and additional use of the district’s fund balance.
Building an education budget is a fluid process that requires assumptions or best-guesses be made in advance of knowing the amount of funding that the borough assembly and state legislature will contribute, Jones explained.
The GF preliminary budget assumes that at least $43 million (29 % of the GF) will come from the Kenai Peninsula Borough, the same amount as last year, and that $98 million (67%) will come from the state. Even as Jones spoke Tuesday night, KPBSD Superintendent Dr. Steve Atwater was attending a borough assembly meeting to ask that $1.5 million be added to its local contribution. There’s still a way to go before the borough assembly funds to its property tax rate “cap,” which currently stands at 4.5 mills, Jones said. Concerned residents may want to urge the assembly to fund to that cap, he said.
Watching the issues in Juneau legislature closely, the district assumes that the Foundation Funding Program will be level-funded, as it has for the past four years, which would bring in $75 million for Kenai Peninsula district schools. The district also anticipates receiving $275,000 from the Quality Schools Program grant, and $22 million in payment to the retirement system on behalf of the district. Possible one-time funding of $1.7 million, currently included the governor’s budget, is not included in the school district’s budget.
The problem is there are not many places to cut in the budget, Jones said.
Examining the general fund budget more closely, $70.6 million (75%) of all expenditures go to regular instruction or teachers, with $19 million more going for Special Education instruction. Instructional support, such as aids, janitors, food service workers and such accounts for 24% of total GF expenditures.
Certified (teacher) salaries accounts for 34 percent of those total expenditures, while non-certified salaries account for another 11.6 percent. Meanwhile, employee benefits (including Workman’s Comp) accounts for 36 percent of expenditures. Purchased services (contracted-out services) is just 6.8 percent, utilities is 5.6 percent, travel is.74 percent and professional technical services is .66 percent.
With salaries and benefits totaling 81 percent of the budget, that only leaves utilities, in-kind services and discretionary accounts to trim from, the latter a mere 7.6 percent, Jones said. Utility uses already have been lowered considerably over the past few years through conservation measures taken by each individual school building, with monetary incentives repaid for savings, Jones said. Nevertheless, the cost of fuel continues to increase with rising fuel and transportation prices, as do transportation expenses.
At its February Board of Education meeting, board members discussed increasing the PTR or pupil to teacher ratio, and just how many positions would be cut. “We have no solid answers for you now, but the board is looking at cuts in those staffing levels,” Jones said.
“There isn’t anybody willing to change the PTR or staffing formula. It would be a real struggle to get that changed,” Arness tried to reassure the audience. “It would only be done with “kicking and screaming,” he added.
Seward Elementary School teacher Terri McKnight said enacting formulaic across- the-district staff reductions, without regard to the location of the students, is not a good idea as the impact of cutting a single teacher is greater in smaller schools than in larger ones. “You can only cut so much before you have to cut core classes. It’s a great concern in our middle school,” McKnight said.
Mica VanBuskirk, a parent of elementary-age children, and a Seward Site-Based Council member, questioned the equity that such formula cuts actually provide. She listed the many electives that Seldovia Middle School, one of similar size to Seward Middle School, offers. Their students get art, photography, robotics, concert band, mixed choir, drum line, and much more. This year, SMS electives were drama, smart board, music appreciation and year book, she said. Next year, with an expected decline in students, no electives may be available unless they are provided in the regular classrooms. “It’s stark the difference between what’s available to our students and the other students,” VanBuskirk said.
Other schools on the peninsula have really great art classes, said Seward parent/site based council member Amy Hankins. “But here, we’re fighting for a highly qualified science teacher.”
“That’s a slippery slope to make that kind of argument,” warned board president Arness. “If you add teachers arbitrarily for one school over another, you’ll get schools fighting with other schools. It becomes a question of who’s going to shout the loudest and who’s going to bring in the most people (to meetings). I wouldn’t want to be on the board if we did that.”
Pastor Jim Doepken, who is moving to Seward next year, along with his own two sets of school-age twins, said two of his daughters are currently performing in a musical at their South Anchorage high school, and one of his kids enjoys playing flag football. He’s wondering how they will do here without their passions available to them. But, he said parents and community members could help fill in the gaps, and help provide children those activities that the schools can’t due to their size.