Sitnews - Stories in the News - Ketchikan, Alaska



The Root of the Problem
by Mike Harpold


August 27, 2003
Wednesday - 12:30 am

During each of the past two years, the Borough Assembly has balanced the borough budget by taking money from the school district. Last year, learning that the district was scheduled to receive a Learning Opportunity grant from the state for $500,000, the Assembly cut an equal amount from the school board's request. This year, the Assembly not only cut
Mike Harpold

$500,000 from the school district's operating budget request, but cut $100,000 for student extracurricular activities.

Some assembly members have actively sought to mislead the public by asserting that the budget cuts are in response to actions taken by the school board, that it is the school board that is fiscally irresponsible. In particular, they cite the pay raise the school board gave to teacher's last year. In fact, school funding is based on student count, not education expenses. Whether or not to give teachers a raise is a decision the school board has to make given the funds it receives.

The truth, however, is more prosaic; the borough simply doesn't have the money to fund the school district's requests. With less than $800,000 in cash reserves, had the assembly not taken over $500,000 out of the school district's operating budget in each of the past two years the borough would be bankrupt. Or, it would have had to raise taxes.

Depleting reserves, laying off employees and raiding school funds, while at the same time not increasing property taxes, has allowed some assembly members to claim that they have been "fiscally responsible." But the truth is that by not raising taxes they stood to escape the scrutiny that a tax increase entails. Items such as the cost of maintaining former Ketchikan Pulp Company property at Ward Cove coupled by the loss of tax revenue from those properties, increasing public works commitments, heavy subsidies to airport operations and direct loans to private businessmen paint a far different picture, a picture of an assembly that has not faced-up to it's responsibilities.

The cost to the borough for education has not increased, it has in fact decreased. The borough contribution to the school district budget has declined from $7.7 million dollars in 1999 to $7.3 million in 2003. At the same time, borough General Fund expenditures have increased from $6.75 million in 1999 to $7.9 million in 2004. It is not the cost of education that has driven the borough so close to insolvency.

There is little excuse for the raid on school district funds; it just happened to be a convenient pot of money. It is not fair to increase spending on the one hand, no matter how popular or meritorious the program, and then pretend the cost of government is not going up. Funding education is one of the Assembly's most basic and most important tasks, a task that it is failing. The cost of educating our children should not become the scapegoat for the borough's financial plight.


©Mike Harpold
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