Ahead of Tuesday night’s meeting, the Kenai Peninsula borough assembly and the school board got together for a joint work session on the school district budget.
The district is looking at a third straight year of operating with a deficit. That number is about $3.3 million for the upcoming fiscal year, and insurance costs are one of the big drivers. Assembly member Norm Blakely wondered if some savings couldn’t be found by offering the same coverage for all school district and borough employees. Assembly member Kelly Cooper said that same thought has been brought up before.
“It’s called health care powers. When we had our health care task force, it was met with a resounding ‘no, no, no’. The overall opinion of the people on the task force, that was a representative group with people on the assembly, people in the (health care) industry, people from the public, etc, there were a few of us that supported it. People in the industry did not support it. The fear was the loss of control and ability to operate the way they have.”
Another issue is student enrollment, which is on the decline. But more specifically, where those students are enrolled. Assistant superintendent Dave Jones says while the overall number of students has gone down over the past two decades, more students have been enrolled in special education programs. And funding from the state for those programs isn’t what it once was.
“For each student we identified as special education, we’re no longer individually funded. From FY 1998 through FY 2017, our overall student population decreased by 15 percent, our overall special education count increased by 25 percent. And the big kicker for us has been that in 1998, we had 55 intensive students. In 2017, we had 190," Jones said.
At this early stage in drafting the school budget, the borough administration has signaled it wants to offer flat funding, the same amount as last year. Borough Mayor Charlie Pierce says there’s a lot of promise in the local economy to help turn things around, but in the meantime, negotiations with the district’s employee unions will likely be the boxing ring for the fight over school funding, especially those insurance costs.
“It’s a negotiated item with those employees that are represented in the borough. It’s an excercise that, if it hasn’t already happened, perhaps it should as as far as comparing (the district’s insurance plan) with our plan and looking at the actual cost savings that could be acquired and then negotiating that at the table with our represented employees and of course employees that are not represented, and I think we can implement something.”
A series of public budget meetings is set through the rest of the month, in Seward on the 13th, Homer on the 20th, at SoHi the 21st and Kenai Central High School the 22nd.