Charlie Pierce, Jesse Bjorkman and Brandi Harbaugh attend a meeting of the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly on Tuesday, May 4, 2021 in Soldotna, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)

Charlie Pierce, Jesse Bjorkman and Brandi Harbaugh attend a meeting of the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly on Tuesday, May 4, 2021 in Soldotna, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)

Assembly votes down $48 million school district funding floor

Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Charlie Pierce has said that he is committed to funding the school district at the district’s requested $48 million

The Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly voted Tuesday against formally setting $48 million as the minimum amount of money the borough would contribute to the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District in its FY22 budget.

The decision came after an hourslong debate that also upheld existing precedent about some conflicts of interest. FY22 refers to the fiscal year beginning on July 1, 2021 and ending on June 30, 2022.

Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Charlie Pierce has said that he is committed to funding the school district at the district’s requested $48 million. By passing the resolution, the assembly formally set the funding floor at $45 million, meaning that in its final budget, the borough cannot give the school district less than $45 million. The borough can give the district more than $45 million by appropriating additional funds at a later date.

Assembly member Willy Dunne proposed amending the resolution to increase the contribution floor by $3 million, or to $48 million, which is what the district asked for when it transmitted a formal budget request to the borough last month. In the funding request letter, outgoing KPBSD Superintendent John O’Brien noted that $48 million is $2 million less than what the borough contributed in FY21.

Budget negotiations between the school district and the borough were underway for months, with an initial difference of $10 million in what each was proposing for the district. O’Brien clashed with Pierce over that difference, which he said could cost the district 100 teaching positions. Pierce countered by saying that the district should use some of the federal COVID funds it received to save those positions.

Upon learning that it would receive a third round of federal funding under President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan, the district said that it would use its second round of funding to save those positions. Twenty percent of funds from the American Rescue Plan, however, must be used to help students who fell behind academically during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Assembly debate on the resolution got off to a rocky start when assembly members Tyson Cox and Jesse Bjorkman disclosed potential conflicts of interest, which assembly members are required to disclose. Bjorkman is a teacher at Nikiski Middle/High School and Cox’s wife is a teacher at Soldotna High School.

As assembly president, Brent Hibbert is responsible for ruling whether or not an assembly member has a conflict of interest. If an assembly member is found to have a conflict of interest, they are not allowed to vote on the legislation they have the conflict with. Hibbert ruled Tuesday that neither Bjorkman nor Cox had a conflict because setting the school district’s funding floor would not impact the salaries or benefits of Bjorkman or of Cox’s wife.

Hibbert’s ruling is able to be overturned if five assembly members vote in favor of overturning it. Assembly member Richard Derkevorkian, who attended the meeting remotely, called for a vote to overturn Hibbert’s ruling, citing a last-minute memo provided by Borough Attorney Colette Thompson, in which she said she thought there would be a conflict. That memo was not made public.

Thompson said Tuesday that while she believes a conflict exists for both Bjorkman and Cox, there is precedent in other second-class boroughs in Alaska for assembly members affiliated with a school district to vote on budget issues related to the district. In the case of Fairbanks North Star Borough, for example, the assembly has “decided generally” that there is no conflict because of how large the pool of people affiliated with the school district is.

Bjorkman and Cox were not allowed to vote to overturn the ruling, which needed five votes in support. Ultimately, it received only three votes in support, which were cast by Derkevorkian, assembly member Bill Elam and assembly member Kenn Carpenter.

In debating Dunne’s amendment to increase the funding floor to $48 million, several assembly members cited Pierce’s commitment to $48 million for the district even if the amendment failed.

Bjorkman said that his vote on whether or not to increase the funding floor came down to trust, and that his trust in the other people on the dais was eroded by efforts to disqualify him and Cox from voting on the issue.

“I was prepared to go along with $45 million if I knew that I can trust everybody up here and we weren’t gonna play political games, but that’s not apparently the playbook we’re playing by,” Bjorkman said. “If we don’t set the floor at $48 [million], the mayor can come back and veto funding back down if he wants to … that will be in his purview. If we set the floor at $48 [million], that number is fixed.”

Pierce said that borough support for education funding can be seen in the level at which KPBSD has been funded historically and that ultimately the budget must consider all departments.

“As a mayor, I have to balance the entire budget, all departments,” Pierce said. “It’s not just about the kids. The kids are very important [and] a very high priority on the funding level, and they always have been historically in this borough.”

Assembly Vice President Brent Johnson said that he would vote no on increasing the funding floor to $48 million because he trusts Pierce to increase the final amount to $48 million.

“I’m willing to go along on [Pierce’s] timeline on this,” Johnson said. “I don’t think that it’s going to hurt the school district to wait as we wade through this issue. I’m pretty confident that we’re going to get there.”

Cox said that he would also vote no on increasing the floor to $48 million and asked Pierce to restate his intention to increase the funding later.

“[$48 million] takes five votes,” Pierce said. “If five of you agree, you’ve got it.”

Dunne said that while he appreciates Pierce’s commitment to $48 million, the assembly could finalize the funding floor by voting in support of his amendment.

“By amending the resolution tonight to $48 million we can close this chapter and not subject the public to another month of trying to lobby for money above that floor,” Dunne said. “That $48 million, the mayor said a number of times is what we’re going to get to. So let’s get there now.”

The vote to increase the funding floor to $48 million ultimately failed by a vote of 7-2, with assembly members Bjorkman and Dunne voting in support. The final resolution passed by a vote of 8-1 with Dunne voting in opposition.

Tuesday’s assembly meeting can be viewed on the Kenai Peninsula Borough website at kpb.legistar.com.

Reach reporter Ashlyn O’Hara at ashlyn.ohara@peninsulaclarion.com.

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