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by Mike Harpold


April 29, 2004

University of Alaska President Mark Hamilton, in town recently, colorfully likened the effect of nine years of budget cuts the University endured to a Tidybowl commercial. In the five years since he assumed his post, the legislature has reversed course and put money into the University system. The increased funding has now created an upward spiral. This year for the first time, he reported, over fifty percent of Alaska's youth who go on to college will attend the University of Alaska, up from forty percent just four years ago.

For most of the past ten years, funding for K-12 education in the Ketchikan Gateway Borough School district has decreased. Since the pulp mill closure, a popular date for reckoning in Ketchikan, the school district has struggled to maintain a low pupil/teacher ratio in the elementary schools while eliminating counselors and reducing the number of music and physical education teachers and librarians.

In reducing the number of teachers at the Middle School, the school district abandoned block teaching and increased the size of algebra classes to as many as 35 students, far above an optimal size in a subject where students frequently need individual help. The high school has retreated from a seven period day to a six period day, requiring fewer teachers, but severely restricting the variety and number of electives available to students. The Gifted and Talented program, which as recently as three years ago featured dedicated teachers at the elementary, middle and high school level, has been eliminated.

This year we may have a chance to reverse that trend and start making necessary improvements in our school system. Spurred by the need to help school districts cope with dramatic increases in employer contributions to the Public Employee Retirement System and the Teachers Retirement System, the legislature appears poised to make significant increases to public school funding. Ketchikan schools could get as much as $1.4 million. However, close to $700,000 of that increase is already obligated to pay for PERS and TRS increases and another $350,000 to absorb increases in employee pay and benefits.

The increase in state funding can help improve Ketchikan schools, but only if the borough does its' part by fully funding the school district's budget request. While we are mindful of the difficult choices that the Assembly must make, our request this year of $7,106,968, is less than that of four of the past six years, and exceeds the previous two years only because the borough cut $500,000 in FY '02/'03 and $450,000 last year. The assembly should also fund the district's request for $250,000 for student activities and avoid passing on to the school operating budget, increases in property and liability insurance the borough has appropriately paid in the past.

Not many Ketchikan residents willingly accept the suggestion that our schools have been on a downward spiral, one of the reasons why every sitting assembly member, when campaigning for the office, pledged his or her full support for education. Few would say, however, that K-12 education in this town is moving forward. It can if the legislature follows through on its' promise to increase education funding this year and our assembly provides full local funding.

Post script: The Borough Assembly will consider the school district budget in first reading next Monday night, May 3, 2004. If the borough manager and some assembly members have their way, the borough will eliminate all support for student activities and pass increases in property and liability insurance on to the school budget, loading an additional $344,000 in cuts to the school district budget over last year's levels. Public testimony will be heard at the beginning of the meeting which convenes at 5:30pm in the City Council Chambers.


Mike Harpold is the President of the Ketchikan Gateway Borough Board of Education



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