The public comment period at Tuesday’s Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly meeting was dominated by resident reactions to Mayor Charlie Pierce’s veto for supplemental funding for the school district.
Impassioned testimony from residents who both opposed and supported the veto filled the allotted public testimony time during the meeting. Several people spoke in support of the veto, but the majority of public comment opposed the veto, which was released Monday.
First to testify during public comment time, Christine Hutchinson from Kenai said she was in support of the mayor and his veto.
“I understand, without doing a headcount myself, enrollment numbers have dropped over the years,” Hutchinson said. “They have not increased … I am supportive of limiting the funding, just because funding might be there. I also feel we don’t need to just keep growing, growing government.”
Soldotna resident Fred Sturman said he was also in support of the veto because he doesn’t want to see any new taxes implemented to pay for increased education funding.
“I am in favor of the mayor’s veto and his budget and everything,” Sturman said. “We don’t need any more new taxes. We need cuts.”
Duane Bannock of Kenai said he supported the mayor’s veto because no circumstances have warranted the supplemental funding.
“There has been no unforeseen emergency since you passed the district’s budget,” Bannock said. “Nothing has changed. Nothing new has come in forms of new revenue or expenses.”
Several school teachers and employees spoke in opposition to the mayor’s veto, including Patti Truesdell, who teaches in Hope. She raised four children in the school district and has nine grandchildren attending schools in the area.
“I got to admit, when I was driving down here I had a lot of mean things to say, because when people tell me that it’s not worth having the best school district possible I think my four children got the best education on this peninsula,” Truesdell said. “My nine grandchildren deserve that education and we shouldn’t be in here begging you guys to fund the education that they need. I shouldn’t have to beg. I shouldn’t have to drive in here and ask you guys to fund to the best. I don’t care what you have to do. Not my job, because I’m not smart enough. I just know when we pay for our schools we get what we pay for. We should pay for good schools for our children. My grandchildren deserve it.”
Angie Nelson of Kenai has a kindergartner who attends Soldotna Montessori. She spoke in opposition to the veto and asked the assembly to help keep non-tenured teachers from moving out of the area to other jobs.
“We value what we have here as a community and as a school district,” Nelson said. “It’s so disheartening and so frustrating that people aren’t valuing that and it cuts me to my core.”
Nelson asked Pierce how cutting teachers is keeping cuts away from the classroom.
“I read in your veto that you don’t want to cut from classrooms, so how is cutting my kid’s teacher not cutting from the classroom?” Nelson asked. “I don’t understand that. I don’t know where else you cut from. We have outstanding teachers here. Let’s keep them here. Why do we keep driving people away for having to come and fight and stand and do this? I really hope we can find six good people with good hearts to overturn this veto.”
Linda Hutchings addressed concerns about the cost of education in her public testimony. She noted the school district has cut $8 million from their budget in the last five years and has spent over $9 million of their savings.
“Many feel education is too expensive in our borough,” Hutchings said. “… Let’s be proactive and fund education and give the children of the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District the opportunities they deserve.”
The mayor defended his veto at the meeting and said layoffs of non-tenured teachers are not on the borough’s hands.
“Those pink slips you’re handing out, they don’t belong to this mayor or this assembly for that matter,” Pierce said. “They don’t. They have a fund balance. If they really, truly feel they want to, they’ll go into their fund balance to fix the catastrophic event that’s fixing to occur … You want to protect your fund balance, but what if we need fund balance to?”
Several assembly members bolstered their support to fund education at the end of the meeting.
“I hear stress,” Assembly member Kelly Cooper said. “I hear uncertainty. We can do the supplemental funding now, and depending on what happens, we can adjust our 2020 budget.”
“I was really glad we were able to pass the supplemental funding,” Assembly member Willy Dunne said. “I was dismayed the mayor vetoed it and I hope we can override that veto … I will continue to do what I can to support schools.”