How clean does a classroom need to be?
That’s just one of many questions Kenai Peninsula Borough School District officials find themselves asking as they prepare the next school year’s budget with the expectation of significant cuts in funding from the Legislature.
With more than 80 percent of its budget allocated for employee salaries and benefits, any significant reduction in funding is going to result in cuts to staff. And one possible cut being discussed by administrators is to custodial staff.
So, can schools get by with being swept clean just three nights a week, rather than five?
In the short term, the answer is probably yes. But there’s a long-term impact when buildings aren’t properly maintained, and the question is reflective of the state of Alaska’s education funding as a whole.
Funding for public education is the state’s single biggest expenditure — and one that’s mandated in the state constitution — and while many lawmakers will pay lip service to a strong education system, very few are willing to take the same in-depth look at how funding works as they are with things like oil tax credits or whether to restore the vetoed portion of last year’s Permanent Fund dividend.
With education spending at $1.6 billion, one would think that lawmakers would take a much keener interest in the subject.
Instead, education funding seems to be treated as an afterthought, with short-term fixes implemented or drastic cuts made from session to session, leaving school districts to essentially budget paycheck to paycheck.
Why is that a problem? Well, educating a student from kindergarten through high school is a long-term investment. Sure, you can trim some expenses here and there, and the short-term effects might not be noticeable.
Resourceful teachers and a supportive community can make up for a lack of available resources.
But when school districts across the state are figuratively — and sometimes literally — patching things together with duct tape year after year, the overall quality of school district suffers.
We’re not saying that simply throwing money at school districts is the solution. As we noted, the education is the state’s biggest budget item. Lawmakers are addressing a $3 billion budget gap, and because they have not come up with a plan over the past two sessions, they have fewer options now. Cuts are going to be part of the process.
What we are saying is that, whether the Legislature opts to leave school funding at the status quo or chooses to make reductions, it should do so with a view further down the road than the 2017-18 school year.
To do so, however, requires a much deeper dive into education funding by lawmakers than has been done in recent sessions. They will need to look harder into solutions beyond just tweaking a formula, but rather look at programs that work — and then find ways to maintain them.
We think that effort would be a worthwhile investment of time and energy.
Because, like our school buildings, our education system needs to be properly maintained to ensure it is operating as effectively as possible.
The Kenai Peninsula Borough School District will hold public budget presentations Tuesday at Seward High School, Wednesday at Soldotna High School, and Feb. 21 at Homer High School. All are at 5:30 p.m.
The Soldotna High School presentation will be broadcast via skype to the libraries at Kenai Central High School, Nikiski Middle-High School, Port Graham, Nanwalek, Susan B. English, and Tebughna schools.
The presentations are open to the public.