Zen Kelly, president of the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District’s school board, speaks during a special meeting of the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District’s School Board in Soldotna, Alaska, on Monday, April 15, 2024. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)

Zen Kelly, president of the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District’s school board, speaks during a special meeting of the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District’s School Board in Soldotna, Alaska, on Monday, April 15, 2024. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)

‘They deserve better than this’

School board passes budget with broad swath of cuts, including pools, theaters and some support staff

On an 8-1 vote, the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District’s school board approved a budget that members had described as “the worst-case scenario” during a Monday special meeting.

Earlier this month, the board indicated its intention to move forward with a budget scenario that assumes no increase in state funding for education. The school district is facing a budget deficit of $13.7 million for the next fiscal year.

The budget approved by the board on Monday increases the pupil to teacher ratio by one in most classrooms, cuts 10 days worked by support staff, cuts elementary school counselors, defers upgrades to curriculum and some equipment, cuts extracurricular travel, cuts stipends for assistant coaches and educational programs like Battle of the Books, and closes school pools and theaters.

The budget also requires drawing upon the entirety of the district’s unassigned fund balance and again asking the assembly to fund the school district to the cap.

Board member Patti Truesdell said she supported passing the budget with “a heavy heart,” and that she hoped cuts could be reversed before students return to school and see familiar staff members missing or replaced.

“They deserve better than this,” she said.

Matt Morse, also a member of the board, said he supports the proposed budget because it doesn’t cut other sports and extracurricular activities beyond pools and theaters.

“I was a hard no on cutting that stuff,” he said. “Education isn’t just about math and science; kids need to know other things too.”

Kelley Cizek, another board member, said the budget they passed minimizes changes to classrooms. She said when they explored the idea of further increasing the pupil to teacher ratio, they quickly realized the consequences it could have — eliminating teaching positions.

“Hopefully we understand that this affects a lot of people in different ways,” she said. “Every increase or every cut hurts somebody.”

Penny Vadla, the only member of the board who voted against passing the budget, said she’s concerned about the way discussions about school funding have played out at the state level.

“It really bothered me that we don’t have the support that we need from the state,” she said.

Board member Jason Tauriainen said that the budget will be amended once they have clarity in funding from the state, echoing a sentiment voiced repeatedly by members of the board and KPBSD administration during the budget process. They’ve said that they need to pass a balanced budget now, but that cuts can be reversed if more funding materializes, as happened last year.

School Board President Zen Kelly said that since they decided to move forward with the assumption that no new funding will come from the state, there has not been any indication that more funding will be secured, but he still expects to see some sort of increase.

“There has been no change,” he said. “Uncertainty is just as high as our last meeting.”

In public comment, only the heads of the teachers and support staff unions spoke. Susanna Litwiniak, president of the Kenai Peninsula Educational Support Association, told the board that she understood the position they’re in and that the intention is to reverse the cuts, but asked the board to understand the impacts of the budget they’re approving. That is, pools and theaters will be closed. Even if the budget is modified later, they could still face issues with staffing.

She said that positions tied to those facilities have been difficult to fill. She said that a pool manager role at Susan B. English School in Seldovia and a theater manager role in Seward went unfilled for years.

Now that the budget has been passed, Kelly said that the school board has fulfilled its obligation of providing to the borough, by May 1, a balanced budget. The borough will have 30 days to respond to the request for funding.

By the time the board meets again on May 6, Kelly said he hopes they will have something from the state that they can move forward with.

“We will be revisiting this,” he said.

More information about KPBSD’s budget process, including the full draft budget, can be found on the district’s Board Docs website.

Reach reporter Jake Dye at jacob.dye@peninsulaclarion.com.

Penny Vadla speaks during a special meeting of the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District’s school board in Soldotna, Alaska, on Monday, April 15, 2024. Vadla would be the only member of the board to vote against passing a budget that implements a swath of cuts to support staff and extracurriculars. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)

Penny Vadla speaks during a special meeting of the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District’s school board in Soldotna, Alaska, on Monday, April 15, 2024. Vadla would be the only member of the board to vote against passing a budget that implements a swath of cuts to support staff and extracurriculars. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)

School board member Kelley Cizek, right, speaks as members Jason Tauriainen, Patti Truesdell and Penny Vadla listen during a special meeting of the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District’s School Board in Soldotna, Alaska, on Monday, April 15, 2024. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)

School board member Kelley Cizek, right, speaks as members Jason Tauriainen, Patti Truesdell and Penny Vadla listen during a special meeting of the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District’s School Board in Soldotna, Alaska, on Monday, April 15, 2024. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)

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