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Friday, March 23, 2012


Some academy award winning fights are over the family check book.  

This week the funding checkbook was front and center for the joint meeting of your School Board and Assembly and after the traditional kumbaya’s the district presented a comprehensive 30+slide presentation rolling out their preliminary budget. You know, the budget that by law they have to present to our borough by April 1st each year. That budget is without knowing how much money they have coming down the pike because the school district is at the bottom of the food money chain and all.  They are asked to get out the crystal ball every year and work with approximates of how much the State (76%), the Fed’s (1%) and the Borough (last year 23%) will contribute this coming year so that they can make magic with numbers. The presentation the district gave was pretty clear with important historical facts along with some timely comparisons to other school districts and the reality of what will be the outcome if the bubbling brew of formula funding they end up with isn’t the correct recipe. Think of it as sitting down at your own kitchen table to make your household budget for the upcoming year with big blanks in the information. Blanks like your yearly income.  The district struggles with this every year spending untold amount of staff time and money drafting ever-changing spreadsheets with different scenarios. They use base information they collect from the local and state level enabling them to meet with a stream of stakeholders including the school board, the public, teachers, and support personnel. The school district must have the best used erasers in the world to deal with legislation changes on the state level, (bills that pass during the session), watch out for the governor veto pen and more information that requires a gumby like flexibility to incorporate and paint the new financial picture. It’s a challenge and no matter how transparent they try to be it creates skeptics in the process. The district has asked both the state and local government to establish a more consistent funding pattern in a multi-year funding mechanism so they can plan better, take advantage of increased bulk buying for supplies, reduce the staff time worked on this yearly project, and in short, be better stewards of the people’s money. Another big bone of contention is the lapsed fund. The amount of money left at the end of the year that in a normal person’s budget they save for a rainy day, a planned activity or expense for the coming year.  But not if you’re the school district.  You have to divvy 50% of that up and give it back to the borough under the premise they will use it for future sites for future schools authorized by voters to build.  So far the only money spent out of the fund since 2007 has been money for what wasn't covered by insurance ($1,093,021.00) for the rebuilding after a fire at Su Valley High and  for land ($905,000.00) for expansion of an existing charter school that was not before the voters just the assembly. Currently there is a move in the assembly to go back to that fund for "just a little bit more" for the same charter again without going to the voter. Kinda like cutting a check to your neighbor so you can admire the new bushes he decides he needs for his yard or leash to walk his dog. The district would like to keep their fund balance so they can save for their own educational related projects, and smooth out deficits on the rocky political road of state funding. Again something other districts are allowed to do. It seems pretty inconsistent to continually tell the district to be financially conservative and responsible but not give them one of the big tools in the toolbox to do it.


The Ceremonial Mayor and some assembly members spend lots of time hand wringing while trying to keep the fear alive that the economy is tanking (contrary to every economic report), shouting from the roof tops “there is no reason to panic, we got this” and espousing that the borough is at the front of the pack for funding from the state. This budget presentation shows though when it comes to education funding, well not so much.  Graphically the assembly was apprised of the percentage of local contribution to education that puts Mat Su (growing at a phenomenal pace increasing average enrollment by 400 students a year) really at the back of the pack behind Anchorage, Fairbanks and Kenai in funding. That should give the assembly, the holder of the local contribution check book something to think about when they ponder the district’s request for a 3% increase in funding this year.  Even at that, they aren’t funding to the cap and there will be some lay-offs at the district again this year.  It should be noted that the district has been in cut back mode since last year when 120 employees were eliminated through early retirement and other means. Even with out "testing" we should be able to do the math how lay-off's effect communities.  Just ask your coffee shops, mechanic, gas station or specialty store.  They know. 

This year, principals were asked to make 6% cuts to their school budgets, and administration took a 9% cut in its expenditures. Some groups of employees have agreed to absorb 50% of their health cost increases that are expected to go up 10% this year after a staggering 129% increase over the last 10 years. Bottom line is, in a state that has billions in savings and will continue to in the foreseeable future (unless the powers of be decide to abide by the strong arm of the oil companies and subsidize them beyond the millions and billions they already are with further tax cuts and oh yeah that’s a whole different rant isn’t it?) and assembly members that prefer to cut pennies to spend dollars for their own pet projects there is just no reason not to fully fund our real major resource, education. And a memo to one assembly member the resource this meeting was about was to talk about was "kids" not "coal".  Hark I think I hear an AMEN!


Couple of clean up items of the JT Meeting included some comment by the present School Board President in regards to a resolution he plans to introduce at an upcoming School Board meeting.  He wants to advise the federal government that while they want the monies to keep coming from DCA he has no appetite for the strings attached to NCLB (no child left behind act adopted in 2002 under Bush) that most everyone with an eye on education deems untenable. While there might be some merit to that argument it seems a better road might be a resolution to our Governor and State Legislators to take advantage of the federal governments offer for states to opt out of NCLB by developing their own plan for improvement which gets them out of some of the “one size fits all” chains of NCLB. They can do that by instead passing a resolution supporting HJR 32 which instructs the state to develop its own standards that incorporate rigorous college and career standards, focus on fixing the worst performing schools that have the biggest achievement gaps, and adopt teacher and administrator evaluations based partly on test scores.  School Board and Assembly members are suppose to be non-partisan which might prove to be a stumbling block in supporting what makes sense in this case. Let's hope not.  Another item brought up by Mr. School Board President was the suggestion of merging operations and maintenance of the borough and school district in search of savings.  He claimed to not know if other districts of similar or larger size in the State have studied that possibility which doesn’t pass the red face test really.  It’s pretty widely known that Anchorage has examined this possibility a couple of times that we know of and come up dry.  So while it might be politically popular to suggest this, we will be interested to see if the numbers ever make sense to allow it to happen.  We have two very different public entities here with different missions and most remember the ugly battle over outsourcing custodians which cost the community much more than money to resolve. Yeah, so good luck stirring that pot again without some solid, believable, substantiated information and a process that doesn’t bring everyone to their knees.

An item titled “Site Selection for Charter Schools” (presently six charter and 3 alternatives are part of the 44 school district public school system) was removed from the agenda at the start of the meeting.  This is a discussion that needs to happen in a joint meeting and soon.  It’s been batted about in other meetings and commissions. Currently one school, Academy Charter, is located on borough land and another one, Fronteras seemingly is through the hoops at the district and borough, and also wishes to build a permanent home on existing borough land.  Fronteras staff and parents testified passionately while following what is currently the rules of the road repeatedly in front of the school board, assembly and school site selection committee each time thinking that was what it took to get approval only to be batted to the next body to appear one more time. Granted this was the first to forge this trail but the whole thing shouts to the inefficiency of the current code and you can be sure other charters strapped with large leases will be looking for that trail head too. The discussion of permanent sites for charter schools is a political hot potato that even if it’s not discussed elsewhere will be here in coming days.

Joint Meetings of the Assembly and School District are in borough code to be convened on the second Tuesday in March, June, September and December. There were three scheduled meetings last year and the Ceremonial Mayor took it upon himself to cancel one of them.  It would serve the public and stakeholders better if these bodies pounded out a meeting calendar for the year and lived with it.  It’s easy to let other things get in the way of personally communicating or what’s become the norm with some Assembly members participating telephonically instead of live and in person. But a meeting of the Assembly and the School Board is not one of them.

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