(Foreground) Kenai Peninsula Borough School District Superintendent Clayton Holland, left, and KPBSD Finance Director Liz Hayes, right, speak about the district’s fiscal year 2024 budget during a work session with the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly on Tuesday, March 14, 2023, in Soldotna, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)

(Foreground) Kenai Peninsula Borough School District Superintendent Clayton Holland, left, and KPBSD Finance Director Liz Hayes, right, speak about the district’s fiscal year 2024 budget during a work session with the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly on Tuesday, March 14, 2023, in Soldotna, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)

Amid uncertain state school funding, KPBSD labors to assemble a budget plan

March 14 is the deadline by which Gov. Mike Dunleavy must either sign, veto or not sign a comprehensive education package

JUNEAU — The Kenai Peninsula Borough School District is working to narrow a budget deficit that’s swelled to just under $16 million amid uncertainty about whether or not they’ll get more money from the State of Alaska this year.

March 14 is the deadline by which Gov. Mike Dunleavy must either sign, veto or not sign a comprehensive education package — Senate Bill 140 — passed by state lawmakers in February. The bill includes the largest ever nominal increase to the amount of money the State of Alaska gives school districts per student at $680. That amount is also called the base student allocation. The clock is ticking for the school district to get a balanced budget document in the hands of the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly by the May 1 deadline. With the fate of an increase to state funding for schools in limbo, board members on Monday struggled to reconcile the uncertainty and tepid public feedback on proposed cuts with the district’s imminent need for a financial plan.

KPBSD started its current budget cycle with a $13.1 million deficit. In February, school board members ratified a one-year extension to the district’s collective bargaining agreements with the two unions representing district teachers and support staff, which widened the deficit amount.

KPBSD Finance Director Elizabeth Hayes on Monday shared with board members the feedback the district received through software it launched last month to solicit public input on proposed budget cuts. Of the 57 people who submitted feedback through the Balancing Act software, 23 described themselves as district employees, 15 as parents, 12 as stakeholders and seven as others.

In each of the categories presented for consideration, most respondents said there should be “no change” to the current level of service provided by the district. About two in three respondents said the district should use some amount of its savings to help offset the budget deficit, with 17 of 57 people saying the district should bottom out the account.

Thirty or more of the respondents said there should be no change to the current level of service provided by the district’s counseling assistants, custodians, library aides, nurses, pool managers and supervisors, theater techs and managers, student support liaisons, bilingual tutors, secretaries and special education aides.

Seventy percent of respondents said there should be no changes to the current level of extracurricular activities offered by the district. Users were given the option to cut middle school athletics, intramural and academic stipends and high school athletics.

Nearly all respondents also increased state funding by some amount to help balance the budget — users had the option to increase state funding by up to $1,200 per student. Some respondents, Hayes said, picked the maximum BSA increase allowable under the software and therefore didn’t need to make any budget cuts to balance the budget.

“Some people took the easy way out,” Hayes said.

Forty respondents used a BSA increase of $600 or more to help balance the budget. Hayes said that, after seeing lawmakers pass S.B. 140, the district is expecting an increase between $300 and $600. Some board members suggested reworking the software to present users with more realistic options when it comes to how much state revenue they must work with.

Board member Matt Morse said the district should solicit a new round of input by relaunching the Balancing Act software and giving users different revenue scenarios including the full $680 increase, a gubernatorial veto of the bill and a line-item veto of half of the money approved in the legislative package.

“I don’t think we’re going to get $680,” Morse said. “I think history tends to repeat itself and we’ve got some history with Dunleavy and I think we know that probably, at best, we’re looking at 50% of what the Legislature’s going to appropriate.”

Other board members questioned whether there’s enough time for the district to send another iteration of the Balancing Act software out for public comment before the budget is due.

KPBSD is required to submit a balanced budget to the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly by May 1. The board traditionally votes on the budget during their April meeting. Members floated the idea of holding a special meeting in mid-March to revisit the conversation once Dunleavy decides what to do with S.B. 140.

KPBSD Superintendent Clayton Holland said the district won’t get a “magic bullet” answer from the software that charts a path forward regarding budget cuts. Holland said he’d hoped to see more than 57 respondents, but that it’s time for the board to start giving clear direction to Hayes so she can start assembling the budget. The board will get more input when it makes calls on what to cut, he said.

“Where we’re going to get the most feedback, unfortunately, is when we decide on (cuts) and then people show up here to let you know,” he said. “That’s the worst thing, I get that. I don’t like sitting here staring at this, but that’s probably where it’s going to happen and then you will be adjusting your thoughts based on that.”

School Board President Zen Kelly agreed that the board needs to start making decisions and, during the board’s regular meeting on Monday night, used his closing comments to “call out” Dunleavy on what he said were “blatant untruths” that he said the governor is spreading on social media and during press conferences.

He pushed back on Dunleavy’s assertion that the bill passed by the Legislature doesn’t address charter schools and on the assertion that temporary cash bonuses are an effective way to retain staff. He further criticized Rep. Sarah Vance, R-Homer, for indicating that she will back Dunleavy’s efforts to pursue additional priorities even though she voted in favor of S.B. 140.

“I just don’t agree with the governor on basically holding up this whole bill so that he can get what he thinks is the best way to recruit and retain teachers,” Kelly said.

With less than two weeks to go before Dunleavy needs to make a decision on the bill, it’s unclear whether lawmakers are interested in or logistically able to put together a package that meets his demands and pass it before the March 14 deadline. Members from both chambers have said they’re willing to work with the governor, but need more clarity on what initiatives he wants passed.

This reporting from the State Capitol was made possible by the Alaska Center for Excellence in Journalism’s Legislative Reporter Exchange. Alaska news outlets, please contact Erin Thompson at editor@peninsulaclarion.com to republish this story.

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