The Seward High School swimming pool, also home to the Seward Tsunami Swim Club, is facing closure along with a number of pools and extracurricular activities throughout the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District (KPBSD). At issue are state education funding shortfalls that are threatening the KPBSD with a projected deficit of $4.4 million for the 2023-2024 school year. With a balanced budget due in April, the school board faces difficult decisions on where to make cuts entailing the lowest impact to education.
“When looking at where to balance the budget, our priority is the students, and to keep ‘cuts’ as far from the classroom as possible,” wrote KBPSD Board President Debbie Cary in a recent open letter. “When we increase PTR (pupil teacher ratio), that is a direct cut to the classroom. Staffing is our highest cost driver. Just over 80 percent of the budget is employee salaries and benefits. Many times, the legislature has come through with one-time funds to cover the next operating year, yet when we cut now (or simply don't offer contracts until later in the year), we lose some of the best and brightest teachers.”
On March 6, a KPBSD board meeting played host to a packed house in Soldotna, with testimony after testimony offered by students whose activities are dangling in the balance. Among those present, past Tsunami Swim Club president and mother of Olympic gold medalist Lydia Jacoby, Leslie Jacoby spoke to the importance of keeping the pools open.
“I definitely got the impression that nobody wants to close pools,” Jacoby told the Journal on Tuesday. “It’s a target item because we can’t lose teachers. They can be expensive to run, but they’re very, very important. I think it was important to show up and just to represent and to make sure our voices are heard and that pools are important and that swimming is an important thing for our society.”
At issue is the Base Student Allocation (BSA) from the state. Although it saw a raise for the first time since 2017, the $30 increase was not enough to outpace recent hikes in inflation. Currently two bills sit before the state legislature – House Bill 65 and Senate Bill 52 – which would significantly increase the BSA and make funding cuts unnecessary, but with the April KPBSD budget deadline looming, swift action is needed on the part of state lawmakers if pools and theater programs are to be saved. Yet for Seward, at stake is more than just extracurricular activities, according to Seward Schools Site Council President Mica Van Buskirk.
“In addition to the pool closing, if there is no increase to the BSA, our elementary school will lose 1.5 teachers,” she said. “Our middle school/high school art position is being eliminated, plus 1.5 middle school teachers and one high school teacher. It’s 15 percent of our current staffing. Our schools are being devastated.”
Meanwhile, swimming activity organizers are planning the next year’s events while hoping for a miracle.
“It could definitely affect the swim camp and high school swimming next year,” Jacoby said. “I’m hopeful that won’t happen, but it’s one of the reasons we have to keep showing up. We’re definitely in the thick of big planning for future events.”
Though unless House Bill 65 or Senate Bill 52 pass, KPBSD budgeters will be powerless to avoid the cuts.
“The district has no way to raise funds, but the legislature does,” read Cary’s letter. “Please consider writing to the legislature to let them know you value education and what KPBSD offers to the students and the community. Please tell your story on how cuts would affect you and your family.”
“We have to put pressure on the legislature, our representatives, to let them know we need an increase to the BSA this year,” Van Buskirk added. “They need to hear stories from families, not unions and school administration on how this lack of increase to the BSA for the last five years has affected our schools.”
Kenai Peninsula legislators can be reached at the following addresses: Senator Jesse Bjorkman, Senator.Jesse.Bjorkman@akleg.gov; Senator Gary Stevens, Senator.Gary.Stevens@akleg.gov; Representative Ben Carpenter, Representative.Ben.Carpenter@akleg.gov; Representative Justin Ruffridge, Representative.Justin.Ruffridge@akleg.gov; Representative Louise Stutes, Representative.Louise.Stutes@akleg.gov; Representative Sarah Vance, Representative.Sarah.Vance@akleg.gov
Jacoby’s change.org petition not to cut pool funding can be found at change.org/p/save-swimming-on-the-kenai-peninsula-fund-our-pools-and-keep-them-open-year-round.