District begins school budgeting with Oct. count

The Kenai Peninsula School District starts calculating its future budget by calculating its future students. At a work session prior to Monday’s Board of Education meeting, district Assistant Superintendent Dave Jones presented both enrollment projections for the 2017-2018 school year and a comparison of last year’s projections with this year’s reality.

One variable in the formula that Alaska uses to fund school districts is the average number of students who attend its schools during a 20-day period ending Oct. 28. Having counted 8,810 students in its 44 schools during this period last month, district officials can begin to calculate how much revenue they may get from the state in the coming fiscal year, barring political reductions.

Aside from the number of students who move in or out of the district each year, the steady passage of students through the 13 grades of public schooling makes next year’s student population relatively predictable. District officials first advance each class population up a grade level, moving graduating elementary and middle school classes to their respective middle and high schools, then ask elementary principals to estimate the size of their incoming kindergarten classes.

“The principals do that in a number of different ways,” Jones said. “The smaller the community the easier it is to do. … In the smaller communities they can go around and count noses.”

District-level staff compare the kindergarten enrollment estimates from each principal with the three-year average kindergarten enrollments in their schools, then check out any large discrepancies before reaching a final estimate of the number of incoming kindergartners.

A similar process is used to project the number of students in the Connections program, the district’s correspondence education system for home-school students.

This year, Jones said, the October student count was within eight or nine students of the projections made last year. There was, however, an unforeseen movement of students between the classroom and Connections program.

“In the brick and mortar schools we were 13 less than we thought we were going to be, and in Connections we were 21 more than we thought we were going to be,” Jones said. “Between those two you come up within eight or nine students. It’s a pretty good estimate.”

The small movement of students from classrooms to home-schooling could have a correspondingly small effect on funding.

In the formula the state uses to calculate education funding, student numbers from each school are put through a series of multipliers to represent resources students consume by being in a brick-and-mortar school. With these multipliers, Jones said each classroom student could account for 1.3 or 1.4 points in the funding formula.

By contrast, the formula reduces the per-student value for correspondence students — who aren’t consuming resources by being in a physical school building — making them worth about .9 points in the formula, Jones said.

In itself, this change won’t have a great effect on the district’s budget. The problems come, Jones said, when unforeseeable movement in the student population causes a mismatch between the projection used for preliminary budgeting and the actual number of students in district schools.

“It’s the years that there’s a hundred or two hundred kids less than you thought there were going to be, that’s where it gets scary, because the state pays for the kids that are in your school for those 20 days in October,” Jones said. “If we’ve projected that they’re going to be here, and then hired teachers to teach them, and then we don’t have a hundred or two hundred kids show up — then we’ve got more teachers than we need, and fiscally that causes a problem for us.”

This year, Jones said he’d been concerned about a greater mismatch between projections and students actually present in the October counting period, due to the downturn in the oil industry and its local economic effects.

“Luckily, it seems that we didn’t get hit hard by that like we potentially could,” he said.

With the October count recording an unpredicted 12-student rise in the district’s intensive needs population — who receive extra state funding — Jones said the preliminary budget may be a little higher than anticipated.

“The good news for you is that at this time in the year, we’re coming and not saying we’ll have a big deficit,” Jones told the school board. “We’re coming and saying that the way it all ends up, we’ll have a little more than we projected, budget-wise. A good story, at this time, in this state.”

Projections for the 2017-2018 school year put the district-wide count at 8,970 (including Connections and intensive needs students) for the October 2017 counting period. District officials recently sent this projection to the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development, which will use it to make suggestions for the state governor’s proposed school budget in the upcoming year.

Closer to home, the school board will start planning is fiscal 2018 budget in a Dec. 6 meeting, Jones said. Now that the October count is made, district officials can run it through the state’s formula to arrive at a “status-quo” funding amount — that is, one that assumes no cuts are made at the state or borough level.

“We will not have final numbers on that in December, but hopefully we’ll be bringing you an idea in December what our status quo would look like, and you can start dealing with a five percent cut, or ten percent, that the legislators have been talking about,” Jones said, referring to percentages previously cited by Superintendent Sean Dusek as possible cuts to education funding in the coming fiscal year.

Reach Ben Boettger at ben.boettger@peninsulaclarion.com.

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