By Jenny Neyman
Years of budget cutting and deficit spending have left the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District with no easy answers for how to avoid impacting instruction next year.
Behind door No. 1 — hope for a little more, or at least the same level of funding from the Legislature as last year, which is not a sure bet, given the state’s increasingly dismal budget prospects in the face of low oil revenues.
Behind door No. 2 — pull more money from its savings to cover shortfalls. But after four years of deficit spending, the district’s general fund account is not as robust as it once was, and there doesn’t appear to be any immediate turnaround of the state’s fiscal fortune on the horizon.
Door No. 3 is more budget cuts. After cutting over $1.2 million two years ago and over $1.3 million last year, there are no more relatively easy cuts to make.
“This isn’t the first year we’ve seen problems coming,” said Dave Jones, assistant superintendent of instructional support. “We’ve tried to make cuts as far from the classroom as we can to try to protect instruction. We’ve been at it now for two years, this will be the third year, so the things that are away from classrooms that we can cut are pretty much gone and unfortunately we’re going to have to cut in the classroom.”
In November, the school board decided to pull no more than $1.3 million from savings for next year’s budget and set a preliminary budget that cuts just about $4.6 million, leaving itself some wiggle room in case state and local funding are reduced.
The biggest chunk of that is 25.65 full-time-equivalent teachers, one counselor and two school administrator positions, to the tune of $2.5 million. Jones said that 12 of those teacher positions were already slated for reduction. They were added last year thinking school enrollments would be higher than they ended up being. The rest are coming from reductions in pupil-teacher ratios, meaning bigger classes. Kindergarten classes won’t be affected, but pupil-teacher ratio changes will be applied across all other grade levels and schools across the district.
Supplies, travel, technical, software and equipment at the district office level are reduced $415,000. District office is also taking a cut of 5.26 positions. Jones said they hope to achieve those reductions by not filling vacancies from retirements and people moving.
“They’ve looked at what departments were added to, if the things that were added can go back away,” Jones said. “A lot of people looking at, ‘OK, here’s what we have, here’s what they do, what can we do without? Can we not replace that position and consolidate duties?”
Another $900,000 reduction is being realized through a change in the budget process, trying to better estimate the higher-paid personnel who will retire each year.
And Student Nutrition Services is looking at a $100,000 cut. Jones said that’s from reducing hours per day in some positions, changing others from 12-month to 10-month positions and creating efficiencies in the warehouse and delivery system. The goal is to not noticeably impact breakfast and lunch programs at the schools.
“We hope not, but we’re also looking at the number of hours in each of the buildings in Student Nutrition Services. The one thing that we are considering that I’m going to recommend to the board is the paid meals will probably increase by a quarter,” Jones said.
That would generate an additional estimated $30,000 a year.
“It doesn’t solve our problem, but it reduces the amount that we have to transfer over from the general fund,” he said.
All this could change, however. The district is still in negotiations with teacher and support staff unions on a contract that was supposed to start this school year, so will have to be applied retroactively as well as for whatever future term is agreed upon.
“Right now what’s in the budget is we moved everybody on the fiscal year 2015 salary schedule. And, so, if that salary schedule changes then whatever amount will cause further deficit that we’ll have to look at to see, ‘OK, how do we deal with that? Do we make further cuts, do we use more fund balance, what do we do?’”
And the big question is what happens in Juneau. Jones said that, over the summer, he was hearing that lawmakers wanted to keep education funding at last year’s level, but state finances are in worse shape than expected due to lower oil prices than anticipated. The governor is proposing a slight increase to education funding, but there are also proposals to roll back funding to fiscal year 2014 levels, or to cut 5 percent from base-student allocation to districts. That could mean an additional $4 million to over $6 million added onto the district’s deficit.
“A little over 80 percent of our expenditures are in salary and benefits. So, unfortunately, the biggest chunk of those will probably come out of further staffing reductions. We’re hoping we don’t have to do that,” he said.
Jones gave budget presentations to the public in Seward and Soldotna last week and another in Homer on Tuesday. A recorded version of the presentation is available to watch on the school district’s Web page.