The Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly is wading into the budget for the coming fiscal year, and it feels like deja vu all over again.
Why? Because the assembly has made a decision to increase funding for Kenai Peninsula Borough schools over the borough administration’s proposed amount, but shot down an administration-proposed mechanism to cover the spending.
Last year, the assembly rejected former Mayor Mike Navarre’s pitch to raise the mill rate by a half mill. This year, the assembly decided against Mayor Charlie Pierce’s proposal to withdraw $4.5 million from the land trust fund, though that vote is up for reconsideration on May 15.
It’s hard to argue against providing the school district with as much as we reasonably can, and the funding proposed by the assembly flat funds the district at the current fiscal year’s level. We know that the majority of the school district budget goes toward staff salaries and benefits — and with a budget reduction, that’s where the cuts are going to have to come from. We know that fewer teachers doesn’t just mean bigger classes, it also means fewer opportunities for electives and student enrichment, such as art and music. It means fewer career and technical education classes. It means a smaller pool of staff to head up co-curricular activities — not just sports, but theater, forensics, school clubs, and all those other things that go into developing well-rounded students.
But it’s frustrating to see the assembly not really studying both sides of the equation. One proposal involves sending a measure to voters in October to raise the borough sales tax to 3.5 percent. It’s a nice idea — borough sales tax revenue is dedicated to schools — but Kenai Peninsula voters have a pretty strong record of saying no to any measure to increase taxes. We don’t see that the climate has changed sufficiently that such a measure would pass.
That leaves the administration and assembly left with looking for options that don’t require voter approval. Pierce’s solution for the coming year was to look to the land trust fund in order to buy some time for a long term plan. The borough could also raise the mill rate without going to the voters, and there is discussion of an amendment to increase property taxes that would then be voided is the sales tax increase were to pass.
We’ve said this before — if the consensus of the assembly is that the boost to education funding is a priority, make the decision on funding now. Don’t leave it to voters in October. Either accept Pierce’s plan to use land trust money for a short-term patch, or raise the mill rate to cover the gap. Don’t pass it off to voters and hope for a different outcome than we’ve seen over the past several years.
Otherwise, we’ll be facing the same situation again next year.