The Kenai Peninsula Borough School District is bracing for the most far-reaching budget cuts in living memory in response to Governor Mike Dunleavy’s 2020 budget proposal, which includes a cut of over $250 million in funds the state provides to schools around Alaska.
A principal casualty of such cuts on the Kenai Peninsula would be teaching staff and class size, said outgoing Superintendent Sean Dusek at a meeting held at the Seward High School last week, where many expressed concern about the school system’s future, perhaps few as categorically as Dusek himself.
“The danger with the proposed budget from the governor is, we get gutted so bad with our staff that were just trying to survive with 45 kids in the classroom,” Dusek said. “And that’s just unacceptable.”
Assistant Superintendent Dave Jones agreed with Dusek’s assessment, saying that the pupil-to-teacher ratio, or PTR, would undoubtedly increase under the governor’s scenario, or under most scenarios involving significant cuts.
“This would decimate the current PTR that we have in our classrooms,” Jones said. “We would see an increase of in the thirties in a classroom, possibly forty depending on the details.”
For the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District, the cuts would amount to over $20 million, a little over a quarter of the revenue that the school district projected it would receive from the state.
If the district had to absorb all of those cuts by letting teachers go it would have to layoff around two hundred of its six hundred teachers, Jones said by way of example, though he stressed that the cuts would not be solely concentrated on instructional staff.
Lawmakers in both chambers of the state legislature are reportedly moving away from many of the provisions in the governor’s budget, according to the Anchorage Daily News and others, but school district officials are nevertheless looking at how to make cuts of this magnitude.
“We’re at the point where we say, ‘What should we do? Where will the cuts come from?’” Jones said. “Over the last five years, there have been some areas that have been out. We won’t touch that area, or they’ve been sacred cows. With the governors’ budget and the amount of cuts he’s proposed – there are no sacred cows. There are no areas that are out of bounds.”
The district’s presentation included a slide listing “areas to be considered for cuts.” The list included teaching and support staff, extracurricular activities, consolidating or closing schools, pools, theaters and “other.”
Even if legislators do not support the governor’s budget in its entirety, it still leaves any budget the legislature does pass open to the governor’s veto. Dusek and Jones both worry that a veto would stall the process and force the district to let teachers go if a solution does not emerge before May.
Over a hundred teachers have not been extended contracts for the coming year, Dusek said. Unless the legislature and governor come to agreement before the end of the academic year, the district may have to let those teachers go merely because it will not know whether it can pay them.
“We have to make that decision by mid-May. And if the governor and the legislature go where we are afraid they will go, where they don’t decide until July, we may have to release those 125 teachers no matter what,” he said. “That can’t happen either. We got to get first away from these cuts, but second we’ve got to get them to decide quickly.”
Cuts could also affect the current fiscal year, since the governor has proposed eliminating $50 million in one-time funding for 2019 and 2020 approved by the previous legislature. This puts the school district in the odd position of not knowing how much revenue to expect for the current fiscal year.
“We’re put in a kind of unique place at this time of year,” Jones said. “Eight months into our fiscal year, we’re not sure if we have a budget deficit of $675,000, or if we have a deficit of $2,074,000. That’s a significant question for us.”
The school district has relied on deficit spending every year since 2015, according to numbers supplied by the district. The size of the district’s unassigned fund balance – the portion of its savings account not already set aside for other purposes, and therefore available to cover deficits – has shrunk in that time from almost $7 million to just over $1.5 million.
Jones appealed to the audience to lobby legislators against the governor’s proposal.
“We’re going to ask that you contact your legislators and work with them,” he said. “Make sure they’re aware that we want a budget passed that doesn’t decimate education, and when it comes time to vote if you need to vote to override a governor’s veto, we would like you to be one of the 45 that stands up and does that.”