by Mike Harpold
March 08, 2003
On March 5, 2003, Governor Murkowski in turn sent his fiscal year 2004 budget to the Alaska Legislature. Having promised during the election campaign to fully fund education, his budget proposes to fund the state school foundation formula at last year's level. At the same time he proposed to cut funding for pupil transportation by twenty percent and reduce funding for Learning Opportunity grants by a third. This year Ketchikan received a $500,000 Learning Opportunity grant and $1.3 million for pupil transportation. If enacted, the governor's budget will cost Ketchikan schools $435,000.
The Borough Assembly, which along with the Alaska Legislature is responsible for funding our public schools, has not yet begun to consider its' FY '04 budget. Last year the assembly balanced the borough budget by cutting $500,000 from Ketchikan schools, for the first time in many years providing less than the maximum local funding permitted under state law. The outlook this year is not encouraging. According to the Daily News, (March 4, 2003), because of expected lower property tax receipts - all that Gateway Forest Products land coming back to the borough and off the tax roles - the borough expects a $1.2 million revenue shortfall.
Positions are already being taken. The borough refused to pickup any non-construction costs associated with the Schoenbar Middle School remodel project such as housing middle school students in another location during construction. The school district will have to absorb those costs. Anticipating a request to the borough to help pickup some of the costs of pupil transportation being shed by the state, the borough manager complained to the Daily News (March 7, 2003) that, "We've got kids going all over the place," and placed the responsibility for getting kids to school on parents.
Meanwhile, down in the trenches, the school district has its own set of problems. The district must absorb the cost of a hike in teacher's pay scheduled to kick-in this fall. Several kindergarten and first grade classrooms this year have as many as twenty-eight kids, far exceeding the twenty or twenty-one student per teacher ratio optimal for students at that age range. Not having counselors available in the elementary schools has meant that some children sit in classrooms unready to learn or don't show up for class at all. The dropout rate continues substantially higher than the state average. High school students desiring to pursue vocational or technical tracks do not have a drafting class, a pretty basic requirement in many trades. The maintenance staff does not get to some work orders for as long as six months.
At election time, every candidate promises to support education, but by budget time some of those promises seem to fade. Moving the school budget cycle so that votes on education funding occur closer to elections might be a good thing.
Between the legislature which must approve the state budget by mid-May, the school board which must report its budget to the borough by April 30th., and the assembly, which must pass a budget in June, a budget which like the state's may well include new taxes, there will be a whole lot of talkin' goin' on. During it all lets not forget - we have a whole bunch of kids in this community to educate.
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