Viewpoints: Letters / Opinions
Ketchikan Taxpayers & Assembly/School Board
– or –
The Ant and Grasshopper
By Dan Bockhorst
May 25, 2018
In Delphi, Greece around 582 BC, Aesop narrated a fable of a grasshopper that spent the summer frolicking while an ant gathered food for the coming winter. When winter arrived, the grasshopper didn’t have enough to eat and begged the ant for food. The ant reminded the grasshopper of its failure to prepare for lean times and told it to frolic elsewhere.
2,600 years later and 5,775 miles away, the ant and grasshopper fable is playing out here in Ketchikan. The School Board asked the Borough Assembly to provide 12% more local discretionary funding for schools next year compared to this year. Unsatisfied with the requested 12% increase, four members of the Borough Assembly gave the School Board a 22% increase for next year, nearly double the Board’s request.
Assembly members Bradford and McQueery spun the tale that the Borough’s Local Education Fund (“Fund”) was created to provide the School Board with every dollar of Fund income for that year. Together with Assembly members Wong and Pierce, the four Assembly members pushed through the 22% increase. The action was capricious, inconsistent with the Assembly’s fiduciary obligations, and an abrogation of its duties.
Not accepting the tale, Assembly members Pickrell, Bailey, and Dial voted against funding beyond the School Board’s request.
The Fund was created to provide a winter storehouse. When the Assembly created the Fund in 2014, it made a finding that “significant threats exist to current State and federal levels of funding for operation of schools, school debt reimbursement, capital funding for schools, and funding for major maintenance of schools.” School Board member Glen Thompson, a principal architect of the Fund as an Assembly member, characterized the Fund at a School Board meeting last month as an “emergency fund” for our schools.
Due to a math error by the four Assembly members, nearly $200,000 in Fund income was left out of the school funding scheme. The Assembly was told of the error before its final vote on school funding, but the four didn’t try to remedy the error. Thus, the four Assembly members contradicted their own tale by “shortchanging” the School Board of that $200,000.
To compound their capricious action, the four Assembly members were unmoved by a last-minute one-time State grant of nearly $400,000 to our School Board. The Assembly’s funding plus the last-minute State grant provides our School Board with nearly $750,000 above the Board’s budget adopted on April 25.
Our school district is facing monumental financial challenges. Ongoing collective bargaining may cost our district millions of dollars over the next two years, yet the School Board’s budget makes no projection for such increased costs. In four months, the Secure Rural Schools program (providing nearly $900,000 for our schools next year) expires. Tobacco taxes, which provide another $900,000 annually, will expire in three years.
Legislators approved a State fiscal plan involving limited draws from Alaska Permanent Fund earnings; but the State’s annual deficit remains high – about $700 million. Legislators will likely consider reducing that deficit by shifting more costs to local governments. That might include part of the $2.8 million annual State subsidy of our School District’s retirement plans. The legislature might also increase the State’s school tax levied on the Ketchikan Gateway Borough. Currently, that 2.65-mill levy costs us $4.7 million annually. A return to the 4-mill rate previously in place would add $2.4 million to the yearly cost of education. The State may also cut back, as it recently did, in partial funding of the Borough’s school debt payments – the Borough has bonded debt and other obligations totaling $33.6 million for schools and other facilities. A reduction in enrollment is also anticipated next year, which, if it materializes, would result in substantial reductions in State funding for our schools. The Houghtaling School roof replacement will cost the Borough more than $1 million; the School Board has identified an additional $9.2 million in other capital needs.
Presently, we spend $48 million for K-12 education in Ketchikan – $21,000 per student. While our community is rightfully proud of the impressive successes of our top students, we don’t hear enough about other students in our schools. Recent results of the Performance Evaluation for Alaska's Schools (PEAKS) show that nearly two-thirds of Ketchikan students in grades 3-10 didn’t meet grade-level standards for mathematics, and more than half didn’t meet standards for English Language Arts. Results for science were only slightly better. Our district also failed to achieve targets in both attendance and graduation.
The Alaska Policy Forum reports that Alaska spends the equivalent of 6.2% of personal income on K-12 education. That’s by far the highest in the nation – 19% above the #2 state (Michigan) and 68% above the national average.
The Forum stresses that Alaska’s kids are just as bright as kids anywhere else. They’ve simply been hobbled by a system that has been very slow to innovate and which puts adult agendas ahead of our kids. According to the Forum, we squander too many resources on buildings and bureaucracies and ignore what others have done to improve outcomes without adding extra expense.
BRRRRRRR, there’s an unseasonal chill in the air – winter is coming soon.
About: Dan Bockhorst has worked more than 40 years in the field of local government in Alaska, including almost a decade as Manager of the Ketchikan Gateway Borough.
The text of this letter was NOT edited by the SitNews Editor.
Received May 23, 2018
- Published May 25, 2018
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