Sitnews - Stories in the News - Ketchikan, Alaska



Sifting Through the Chaff
by Mike Harpold


March 31, 2003
Monday - 8:50 pm

If the governor cuts $20 million from school busing and $10 million from grants, if the school district absorbs $541,000 in pay increases, hires three new maintenance employees and buys two new trucks, pays four teachers out of the operating fund instead of grants, doesn't buy social studies curriculum materials next year, but gives Houghtaling one new fourth grade class, if there are no year-end savings salvaged from this years expenditures
Mike Harpold

to carryover into next year, the two charter schools cost us over six hundred thousand dollars each, and student enrollment drops by twenty-five students, even if the borough gives the district $350,000 more than last year the school district will have a $1.7 million deficit. Got that?

Sometimes we make issues so complicated that people can't come to grips with them. Next year's school district budget is a case in point. So here is a brief primer on the school district's '04 budget that should be easier to understand and some suggestions for how it can helped.

The budget Governor Murkowski sent to the legislature contains two items that will impact our school district. First, he is proposing a ten percent reduction in funding for Learning Opportunity Grants. Last year Ketchikan qualified for a $500,000 grant, money which the district receives over and above the state school foundation contribution. Unless the legislature acts to restore funds, Ketchikan schools will lose $160,000 next year. The second item, reducing pupil transportation by twenty percent, will cost Ketchikan $268,000. That means that the district will lose five bus routes unless the amount is made-up either by the borough or out of the school operating funds. You can help by writing or calling Representative Bill Williams or state Senator Robin Taylor.

On the positive side, the borough can give the schools $350,000 more this year than they did last. Last year the assembly cut the district by $500,000 to balance its' budget, reasoning that the $500,000 learning opportunity grant the district was due to receive from the state would even things out. To ensure that the wealthiest districts in the state do not fund their schools disproportionately higher than the poorer areas are able to, the state caps the amount each borough can contribute to its' schools. Last year was the first year in memory that our borough did not make the maximum allowable contribution.

On the down side, the district must absorb $541,000 in increased costs. These include $262,000 for increases in teachers salary and benefits negotiated last year. Negotiated increases in salary and benefits for aides, secretaries and custodians total $88,000. Health insurance will cost $58,000 more next year, and utilities, mainly fuel oil, are expected to increase by $70,000.

Other items the district now projects as downs, but which may change are enrollment: projected to decrease by 25 students, a potential loss of $150,000; loss of grants which may require the district to absorb four teaching positions into the operating fund, $206,000, and; un-spent funds from this years budget, expected to be zero. Money saved at year end can be carried over into next year. Last year that amounted to $166,000 recovered into this year's budget.

The district shouldn't give up on these items so quickly. I remain convinced that we can improve enrollment by planning to keep kids in school. The '04 budget needs to reflect those considerations. In an encouraging development, the new Tongass School of Arts and Sciences has signed-up ten students currently enrolled in out-of-district cyber schools. That means new money for the district. The uncertainty over grant funding suggests that the district should consider hiring a full or half-time grant writer. Administrators need to understand that every dollar that we can save and pass through into next year's budget will be one more dollar that they can use next year.

If we can get the legislature to restore the governor's proposed cuts to learning grants and pupil transportation, and if we can convince the borough assembly to fully fund schools next year we will have taken some long steps in closing the funding gap. However, a deficit will remain and the district will still have difficult choices to make. One of those choices may be whether to retain the maintenance department within the district or ask the borough, which owns the buildings, to pickup the cost of maintaining them. Shifting maintenance to the borough, while retaining the janitorial staff, would save the district over $600,000 in non-personnel costs alone. That would let the district fund music, physical education and library instruction and reduce pupil to teacher ratios in K-2 to boot. That would be nice.


©Mike Harpold
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