By Jenny Neyman
The Kenai Peninsula Borough School District’s fiscal year 2015 budget is a math problem without an easy solution, and with a timer ticking down to when it needs to be solved. And for the borough’s biggest employer, with 8,000-plus students to educate, there’s a lot more at stake than just a good report card or smiley face on a test paper.
As it stands at this point in the budget process, the district is looking at a $4.5 million deficit for fiscal year 2015, which runs from July 1, 2014, to June 30, 2015, and no magic-bullet way to erase the gap between revenue and expenditures.
“We’re spending more money than we’re taking in. That’s the big picture. We’ve been doing that for a while. We’re now reaching a point where it’s harder and harder to make that work,” said Steve Atwater, KPBSD superintendent.
The finances of the district are as difficult to try and budget as they are complex to balance, as they hinge on funding decisions from state and local government beyond KPBSD’s control that are settled after the district is required to figure its budget for the year. It took Dave Jones, assistant superintendent of KPBSD Instructional Support, about an hour and a half to give just a 10,000-foot-overview look at the budget in a public meeting Feb. 19 at Soldotna High School, explaining the 24-page preliminary budget with which the school board is working, which itself is a condensed version of the 195-page full budget document.
It boils down to a concept any third-grader would be able to figure: Tommy wants to buy a $5 ice cream sundae and only has $2. He’s got two options — come up with more money or find a way to get the sundae for cheaper. So, help a neighbor wash his car for a few bucks, ask his parents for a bump in allowance or raid the $6 he’s got in his piggybank. Otherwise, he might look for the sundae on sale or else scrape off the fudge, nuts and a scoop of ice cream until he can afford what’s left.
But what if Tommy had to wrestle with the sorts of conditions placed on either of those two options that KPBSD does? Sorry, Tommy, but child labor laws prohibit you from working for compensation (public school districts in the state can’t decide to charge admission or otherwise raise money on their own, and aren’t allowed to finish a year with more than 10 percent of the amount it spent the previous year left over). The costs of nuts and whipped cream aren’t getting any cheaper, and neither is the sundae. Think mom (state of Alaska) and dad (Kenai Peninsula Borough) are going to bail you out? Maybe they don’t want to, or can’t afford to, and anyway they told you they’d think about it so quit pestering and they’ll get back to you about your request. Now let’s say Tommy has already ordered the $5 sundae and is realizing his hoped-for monetary solutions might not come through. Looks like it’s the piggybank to the rescue, except Tommy then won’t be able to buy a sundae next week, nor the week after that, or after that.
It’s enough to put a kid off ice cream altogether. Schools districts don’t have the option to throw up their hands or passively pout. Planning must be done. School staffing levels and teacher contracts must be decided in the spring. The school board must pass a budget onto the borough in mid-April, even though the district won’t know for sure its funding at that point, as the Legislature is still in session until April 20, and the borough doesn’t take final action on its budget until June. Plus, the official count of student enrollment doesn’t happen until October, and state funding is allotted based on numbers of students.
“We’re in a really unfortunate sequence of timing in that we need to do this piece (budgeting) now, but the numbers that we plug in, we don’t know what they are. We’re just best-guessing right now. And we’re used to it, but we don’t know. And it’s really frustrating for our principals and for our teachers because they want to set themselves up with everything they can do now for August, so that when we open the doors for school in August we’re in position, but we don’t know how to do that until everybody plays their hands,” Atwater said.
Budgeting by the crystal ball