Local News

School funding part III: The Budget

If you were to ask him, Superintendent Robert Boyle of the Ketchikan Gateway Borough School District has many colorful metaphors for constructing a budget.

“We don’t build a budget anymore,” Boyle says. “There’s so many complexities and nuances. We surf a budget.”

Whatever analogies can be made, one thing is clear: the local schools budget is complex. With money coming in from the state, federal programs, grants, and fundraising; and going out through salaries, capital projects, retirement funds, school supplies, cleaning supplies, special needs programs and far more than can fit into one five minute news story, the Borough Assembly and the School Board have a monumental task on their hands every year, figuring out how much the budget will be.

And, representatives from both the Assembly and the School Board agree, the budget for next year probably will be significantly less than this one. What they disagree on is why, and what to do about it.

Borough Assembly Member Agnes Moran explains the current problem.

“Both of those programs are longstanding programs. Secure Rural Schools dates back I think 1908 and PILT is a little more recent,” Moran says. “But the interesting thing about these programs is that people say they are permanent programs. Well, they may be permanent programs but the funding mechanism that goes into them aren’t.”

In laymen’s terms, the expected loss of almost 2.2 million dollars in federal funding has created a massive hole in what borough officials think they can provide for schools. As a potential solution, Moran and other Assembly members are pushing to make the state provide more money for schools.

In the meantime, though, the amount of money the school district ultimately gets is decided by the borough. And to some School Board members, including Stephen Bradford, the problem doesn’t lie with the federal government OR the state.

“I’m saying if we’d made the right decisions five or six years ago, we’d be in a better financial position than we are now,” Bradford says.

School funding at the local level in Alaska is closely tied to property tax, calculated through a mill rate. In recent years the Ketchikan Gateway Borough reduced that rate from 6.8 mills to 5 mills. For Bradford and other school board members, that reduction helped create the current budget problem.

Agnes Moran counters that the shift in taxes may have helped, but at best, leaving the mill rate at 6.8 would have just kicked the can down the road a few years.

Ultimately, though, Bradford believes the tax issue is one of many school budget problems that could be addressed by the borough.

“Some of the assembly members feel passionately and certainly some of us school board members feel passionately, so we do bump heads,” Bradford says.

“I think one my disagreements with the assembly as a whole and individual assembly members is over certain contractual services that in prior years deemed in-kind services. Last year we entered into a contract at the behest of the assembly, and in fact they give the district cash and we turn around and pay that cash back to them. And in my opinion those numbers have no basis in reality and shouldn’t be a part of the process — last year they totaled $526,000,” he added.

That is the problem as it currently stands.

But the facts remain: The borough has told the school district to expect 7.7 million dollars in funding for next year’s budget, down 600k from last year. The deadline for the school district to submit its budget to the Borough Assembly for review is May 1st.

With that deadline fast approaching, the superintendent and School Board are searching for solutions of their own.

One idea floated at a recent board meeting was to defund the borough-wide preschool program, as the school district is required to pay for only K–12 programs.

The School Board also hopes to increase enrollment in the Fast Track/Revilla blended program, which, if it gets enough students, will count in the state formula as a separate school, thus increasing the money the state provides. But money from that solution wouldn’t arrive until after the budget process for next year is already complete.

Superintendent Boyle recently offered a solution of his own: asking for 7.7 million, with a $500k “grant” from the borough specifically for activities, such as sports – according to Boyle, that approach would prevent any staff cuts.

That scenario still asks for more than the borough intends to give the schools. But Boyle believes presenting the request that way will be more palatable to the Assembly.

“That’s what I’m trying to do, is give the borough accountability int he finance process but still meet the goals and objectives of the board,” says Boyle.

In the first reading of the budget passed in early April the Board did not move forward with this approach. Instead, it used Stephen Bradford’s plan to remove projections for “in-kind” services, that is, things such as fire protection for schools or access to the aquatic center. Last year the School Board paid the borough over $500,000 for those services. While that maneuver allowed the Board to pass a budget that would not cut any staff, some Assembly members say that the final charge for those services will have to be negotiated.

In any event, if cuts are to be made, it is up to the School Board to decide what gets the axe.

The Board first compiles a list of items that must be paid for by state and federal law. From there everything gets put in a list in terms of funding priority. While much has been made at public meetings and in the press about particular positions or programs that may get cut next year, administrators and school board members are quick to say that it would be unfair to publicize anything until that priority list is finalized.

After the school board submits its budget, the borough has about a month to give its final say on how much the school district will receive in 2014.

If it’s less than the district hopes for, the board will start working down its list, one staff position or school program at a time, until the numbers add up.

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