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With no BSA increase guaranteed, school board crafts three budget scenarios

Soldotna High School, the largest school in the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District, pictured in May 2023.
Riley Board
Soldotna High School, the largest school in the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District, pictured in May 2023.

The Kenai Peninsula Borough School District's Board of Education met this week to rework its budget. The meeting follows news that the state legislature failure to override a veto from Gov. Mike Dunleavy of a $680 increase to the state’s school funding formula, or BSA.

Over a two-and-a-half hour meeting Monday, the board's Finance Committee considered three scenarios: no BSA increase, a $340 BSA increase which is what the legislature provided last year, and an unlikely $680 BSA increase.

The committee worked from public input submitted through the Balancing Act software, and tried to keep cuts away from people and the classroom as they worked to create balanced budgets.

First, the committee tackled a budget with no BSA increase at all. After using 100% of the district’s unassigned fund balance, or savings, and assuming a full possible contribution from the borough, the district would still be left with a $7.8 million deficit.

Under this scenario, the committee reduced the peer-to-teacher ratio by one everywhere except small elementary schools. They also cut pool and theater staff, one of the most controversial proposals among community members. Board members disagreed about where to make cuts to support staff, which includes secretaries, aids, bilingual tutors and custodians.

Nikiski Board Member Jason Tauriainen argued that custodians couldn’t take any more cuts, while Board President Zen Kelly argued secretaries were in the same position.

“I’ve worked with these people and I’m telling you from my experience being in buildings, in these positions, that that group, they have not been cut like the custodians have, first of all, and they can afford to lose those days and still be able to do their jobs effectively,” Tauriainen said. “If you cut the custodians, the buildings will be in worse shape. It’s a mistake.”

The committee settled on reducing work by 10 days for support staff, excluding custodians.

The worst-case scenario also included cuts to extracurricular travel, elementary school counselors, curricular updates, technology upgrades and a position at the administrative office.

Under scenario two, which incorporates a potential $340 BSA increase, the district is left with a $2.1 million deficit after using all of its fund balance. The committee brought back most of the position and classroom cuts it made under the previous scenario, and reintroduced pools, theaters and extracurricular travel.

And finally, the committee discussed the unlikely situation of a $680 increase, which would allow the district to balance its budget, and possibly even add in new programs or staff.

But the committee debated whether to add things to their dream budget to prove what a district could do with more education funding, or stay frugal and avoid cutting those additions back in the future.

“We’re informing people, if we’re able to get up to this level, these are the things we can do. We’re not gonna pass this budget, it’s just an informational discussion,” Tauriainen said.

But after debate, the committee settled on utilizing some of the fund balance and not including any additions like reading interventionists or career and technical education funding.

Committee members reflected on the difficult timing and process of constructing a budget without predictable state funding.

“And the frustrating part of this is we don’t feel like we can add staff, especially certified staff, without an increase in the BSA that we know we can count on,” said East Peninsula Board Member Virginia Morgan.But we never get that, and it just feels like this constant circle of not being able to achieve what we’re being told we need to achieve, because we’re not being given a budget we can count on. I think if we have extra money, it needs to be going into the classroom, but we can’t do that responsibly with one time funding.”

The committee will present the three scenarios to the full school board at a meeting in April, and needs to submit a budget to the borough by May 1. Unless news of one-time funding or a BSA increase comes from the legislature soon, the district will have to work from the first budget scenario.

Riley Board is a Report For America participant and senior reporter at KDLL covering rural communities on the central Kenai Peninsula.