Kenai City Council member Henry Knackstedt (left), Kenai Vice Mayor James Baisden (center) and Kenai City Council member Teea Winger (right) debate a resolution that would have voiced the city’s support for a legislative increase in school district funding during a city council meeting on Wednesday, April 5, 2023, in Kenai, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)

Kenai City Council member Henry Knackstedt (left), Kenai Vice Mayor James Baisden (center) and Kenai City Council member Teea Winger (right) debate a resolution that would have voiced the city’s support for a legislative increase in school district funding during a city council meeting on Wednesday, April 5, 2023, in Kenai, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)

After heated debate, Kenai council kills — then postpones — resolution calling for school funding increase

Resolution would have called for BSA increase

The Kenai City Council on Wednesday defeated legislation that would have voiced the city’s support for an increase to the amount of money the State of Alaska gives school districts.

The resolution, brought forth by Kenai City Council member Henry Knackstedt, cited the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District’s forecast $13.1 million budget deficit for the upcoming fiscal year and the lack of meaningful increases to the base student allocation, or BSA, by the Alaska Legislature.

The BSA refers to the amount of money school districts receive per student. That amount hasn’t changed since Fiscal Year 2017, and there is a major push this year for the Alaska Legislature to increase and inflation-proof the amount.

Similar resolutions were passed unanimously both by the Soldotna City Council and by the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly.

After a heated debate among council members and Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly Vice President Tyson Cox, who spearheaded the borough resolution and testified in support at Wednesday’s council meeting, the council voted the resolution down. The council shortly after moved to reconsider an earlier motion to table the resolution and then voted to postpone action on the legislation indefinitely. The resolution appears on the meetings action agenda as “postponed indefinitely” and not “failed to adopt.”

Council members who opposed the resolution offered a slew of reasons why they didn’t support the move.

Some pointed to the state’s financial woes and questioned where the money for an increase would come from, while others expressed skepticism about how KPBSD spends its money and accused the district of fearmongering the public this budget cycle.

Kenai Vice Mayor James Baisden, who has previously worked with KPBSD’s budget as chief of staff to former Borough Mayor Charlie Pierce, suggested that an increase to the BSA would increase taxes for borough residents and said the Alaska Legislature may have to pull money from the Alaska Permanent Fund to cover the costs.

Baisden went on to say that there are no accountability measures tied to a BSA increase that would aim to boost education outcomes and questioned how an increase would translate to classrooms.

“Our state is pretty much last when it comes to standards,” Baisden said. “(On) the peninsula, we can always say, ‘We’re the best.’ We’re the best of the worst. Have you heard any conversations on how it’s going to have a positive improvement to the classroom? Because I can’t figure that out.”

He further said the school district advocated last year for a $65.5 million borough bond package meant to address school maintenance even though it knew it was facing a deficit for the upcoming fiscal year. That bond package, Baisden said, uniquely benefited district administration.

“The school district knew they had a $13 million deficit that was never discussed when that bond package passed,” Baisden said. “ … A lot of administration buildings are being built — that’s not going to affect our children. They’re cutting, what we know now is a scare tactic … the pools and that type of stuff. You don’t hear anything about administration cuts.”

For the upcoming fiscal year, the school district has cut from its budget a student support services coordinator position, the district’s director of communications position and a recruitment specialist position.

The bond package approved last year funds 10 projects at 13 district schools. Among those projects are the construction of a new restroom and concession facility at Kenai Central High School’s Ed Hollier Field. That project was added to the package after the City of Kenai lobbied the school district for its inclusion.

Also included was $18.5 million for the renovation of Soldotna Prep School, which is currently vacant. As part of that renovation, River City Academy, Soldotna Montessori Charter School and Connections Home School will relocate to the building along with KPBSD’s administrative offices.

The language of the bond proposition says that the district offices need to be relocated due to “overcrowding” in the borough building, but school district leaders have said it was Pierce’s office that wanted them to relocate in exchange for the borough’s support of the bond package.

“(The borough) dictated that to us,” said KPBSD Planning and Operations Director Kevin Lyon said of the relocation.

Borough funding for school maintenance projects, Lyon said, is also not directly related to the state’s annual funding contribution to the district.

There appeared to be confusion among other council members about some aspects of the school district’s budget process, such as how KPBSD’s federal COVID-19 relief funds were spent, how the State of Alaska calculates school funding and how the BSA is used to determine that funding.

Council member Deborah Sounart, who worked for KPBSD for 26 years, said budget panics happen every year, but have only impacted her classroom twice — both times in a positive way.

“To make a blanket statement like ‘If this doesn’t pass the theaters, the pools, art, music — you’re going to lose it all,’ I hear that every year and it’s not true,” Sounart said. “I’ve never seen that happen.”

Sounart further said multiplying Alaska’s student population of about 130,000 by the $1,000 BSA increase proposed in S.B. 52 should increase state spending on education by $130 million. But, she said, the legislative fiscal note attached to that bill says state spending will go up by about $260 million.

“There’s a legislative finance memo out that says our state budget will increase $250 million each year — almost double,” Sounart said.

Multiplying the number of students in Alaska by the BSA amount does not equal the amount of money Alaska spends on education.

The total amount of funding a school district gets from the state of Alaska is found by multiplying the BSA by the district’s adjusted average daily membership, not the number of students. For the upcoming fiscal year, for example, KPBSD’s project enrollment is 8,450, but its adjusted average daily membership is forecast to be 17,225.13. The BSA will be multiplied by the adjusted number.

Council member Teea Winger, who said she has children in the school district, said she is most concerned about funding accountability for the district. She specifically called into question how KPBSD spent its federal COVID-19 dollars and said in response to concerns about classroom size that classrooms could “easily absorb another four or five students.”

“Where did it go?” Winger said of the district’s COVID-19 money. “I can tell you, we didn’t see it in our classrooms. They got funded for my kids that were home-schooled that year that were not in the school district.”

KPBSD has presented on multiple occasions a breakdown of how it spent its federal COVID-19 relief monies. The district’s finance committee meetings and budget work sessions are open to the public, and the district held three in-person community budget presentations earlier this year, including in Kenai.

The district also receives less funding for home-schooled students than it does for brick-and-mortar. The district receives 90% of what it receives for a brick-and-mortar school for a student enrolled in Connections, the district’s home-school program. The district does not receive any money for students who live on the peninsula, but are enrolled in IDEA, Alaska’s largest home-school program based out of Galena.

In all, KPBSD received three rounds of federal COVID-19 relief money, which came from the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief, or ESSER, fund.

The district used its first round of federal CARES Act ESSER funds — about $2.3 million — during fiscal year 2021, which ended on June 30, 2021. Among the things purchased with those funds were personal protective equipment, Zoom services and Chromebooks.

Roughly $9 million in ESSER II funds awarded under the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act was used by the district to save teaching positions during the previous district budget cycle. KPBSD in 2021 was encouraged by Pierce to use those funds to save roughly 100 positions.

An additional $20 million was awarded to the district through ESSER III funding under the American Rescue Plan Act, 20% of which is required at the federal level to help catch up students who fell behind academically during the pandemic. The district used that 20%, about $4.1 million, to fund summer school programs, pay for teachers that help with credit recovery and intervention, to pay for instructional aides and to pay for iReady Math and other software.

Of the roughly $16.3 million remaining, about $2.4 million was used for salaries and benefits in Fiscal Year 2022 and about $8.1 million was budgeted in Fiscal Year 2023 to pay for 75.5 staff positions, supplies and technology. The leftover $5.8 million in ESSER III funds will be used to offset the district’s looming budget deficit.

Alex Douthit was one council member to speak and vote in favor of the resolution during Wednesday night’s meeting.

“I think it’s a no-brainer to say, ‘Yeah, we want to see our students have money given to them for their education, so we can better this,’” Douthit said. “ … Quite honestly, the government wastes money on stuff way less important than our students and our schools. This is just saying, ‘Yeah, I want to see our schools and students funded and I want to see it improved.’”

Kenai Mayor Brian Gabriel, who also voted in favor of the resolution, noted that the legislation doesn’t allocate any funds, but is rather a “vote of confidence” in children.

“I think what we’re trying to accomplish here, from my perspective, is just signaling that, ‘Hey, we want to have good teachers, and we want to have retention of our teachers, for our, for our children,” Gabriel said. “My children are grown. I’ve got grandchildren in school now and I’d like to see them have the education opportunities that I had.”

Cox again addressed council after the resolution was defeated, saying that he was “pretty disappointed” at both the council’s decision to vote the resolution down and to bring it back to postpone it indefinitely. He refuted many of the statements made by council members and suggested they attend meetings of the KPBSD Board of Education.

“With such a lack of good information, I would strongly suggest going to maybe some of the school board’s — not their meetings, but their finance committees,” Cox said.

During his closing comments, Baisden said council members knew what they were voting on and said Cox has a “bias” because his wife works for the school district. Baisden further said that Cox should apologize to council members and “think about what (he) said.”

“I think council members had great data up here in the decision they made on the resolution,” Baisden said. “I don’t appreciate (an) assembly member coming in here and attacking some of the members on the data they had. We disagree.”

Wednesday’s meeting of the Kenai City Council can be streamed on the city’s YouTube channel.

Reach reporter Ashlyn O’Hara at

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