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KPBSD says schools could close under Dunleavy’s spending plan

Kenai Peninsula Borough School District

School districts are still absorbing the budget cuts they would face under Gov. Michael Dunleavy’s budget proposal. The Kenai Peninsula Borough School District would lose over $20 million next fiscal year. School officials told community members during a meeting at Homer High School Tuesday that a cut that size could cost the school district dearly.

In recent years, KPBSD has faced rising costs and mostly flat funding from the state Legislature. District officials say schools on the Kenai Peninsula have cut about $8 million over the past five years.

The district said recent projections showed that it would actually have money left over at the end of next fiscal year. But then came Gov. Dunleavy’s proposed spending plan. Under the proposal, Assistant Superintendent Dave Jones said the district is facing a roughly $20 million loss.

“First time I looked at that figure, I said [that’s] got to be a mistake” Jones said.

That money includes the governor’s proposed cut to the foundation formula for schools and a repeal of a one-time grant from the state.

“We have no boundaries anymore,” he said. “When we’re looking at $20.9 million, there are no sacred cows.”

He said the loss is the equivalent of funding for 209 teachers. But the cuts won’t just mean fewer educators in the district.

“Do we make the decision that we take 21 teachers out of the classroom, or do we not fund sports?” he said. “Let me make it clear: I'm not advocating for either one of those, folks. I've been stuck in this place by the governor of this state.”

Jones said Dunleavy’s proposal would force the district to consider closing schools, pools and its theaters. The district has already been considering consolidating schools, but it said a cut of this magnitude would speed up that timeline.  

Principals, like Eric Pederson of Paul Banks Elementary, said that would mean big changes for Homer’s schools. 

“We'd have to look at multi-age classrooms as well to try to figure out where they are,” Pederson said. “But I think,  when you're talking $20 million, we're going to have to talk about maybe McNeil consolidates with Paul Banks. I mean, I don't know. I think those are the types of conversations that people need to be aware of.”

For Homer High School, Principal Douglas Waclawski warned that the school could lose a third of its staff. Others predicted that surging class sizes would force teachers to take jobs in the Lower 48 and some worried that families would also leave the state as schools’ resources diminish. 

There have been some media reports that the proposed cuts could affect the maximum amount that local manipulates are able to give to districts. However, both KPBSD and the Kenai Peninsula Borough say that Gov. Dunleavy’s budget proposal would not affect the borough’s funding cap.

Still, the borough would be in a tight position if the proposed budget cuts went through. It would lose roughly fifteen million from revenue it receives from levying taxes on oil and gas infrastructure and about $2.6 million from school bond debt.  

“In the multiple meetings that I've had with the mayor to talk about FY20 funding, he said multiple times you will be receiving less,” said Assistant Superintendent Jones. “Because they're going to have budget concerns.”

It’s not just next year’s budget that’s causing financial worries. Dunleavy wants to slash $20 million already allocated to school districts. The Legislature would need to approve the move, but in the meantime, the district doesn’t have any access to those funds.

“That $1,398,000 for KPBSD is sitting in a bank account in Juneau and is on freeze until it’s determined at the legislative level," he said. "So we either could be for the year at $675,000 deficit or if they take that money, we could be a deficit of $2,074,000.”

Jones said the district will continue the discussion on the budget during a special meeting with the district’s board of education on March 21. 

Renee joined KBBI in 2017 as a general assignment reporter and host. Her work has appeared on such shows as Weekend Edition Saturday, The World, Marketplace and Studio 360. Renee previously interned as a reporter for KPCC in Los Angeles and as a producer for Stateside at Michigan Radio. Her work has earned her numerous press club awards. She holds an M.S. in journalism from the University of Southern California and a B.A. in women's studies from the University of Michigan.