Web posted Wednesday, March 27, 2002

School district Juneau trip back on track

Peninsula Clarion

Citizens concerned about area public schools are packing their travel bags again. The on-and-off plans for a lobbying trip to Juneau are back on, with the first person due to leave Tuesday for the state Capitol.

Parents, students and other community volunteers will be visiting the Alaska Legislature throughout April to make the case that schools in general, and the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District in particular, urgently need more funding. Their efforts will add to those of the peninsula's legislative delegation, borough officials, school board members and district employees promoting the cause.

"I've observed over the past five or six years that the money we have to educate kids is really dwindling," said LeRoy Heinrich. "We just have less and less money to operate on."

The Kenai grandfather is one of those heading to Juneau. He has served as a community volunteer on the school district budget committee for about six years and chairs the site council for Kenai Alternative School. Concern about his grandchildren's options and cuts to vocational education programs first got him involved in school issues, but now he is concerned about the overall damage budget shortfalls are doing to schools, he said.

Originally, the community members were going to travel March 6 with district administrators and the presidents of the employee unions representing school teachers and support personnel.

But the Kenai Peninsula Borough paid for their tickets, which led to complications. Questions arose about whether the assembly intended to buy tickets for parents when it approved money for a lobbying trip and whether such tickets would be legal without the citizens registering as lobbyists.

Critics accused Mayor Dale Bagley and borough lobbyist Mark Higgins of discouraging citizen involvement. At the March 12 borough assembly meeting, the assembly voted to support the parents' travel, and subsequent legal consultation with the Alaska Public Offices Commission OK'd the purchase.

"It was decided that parents who wanted to go should go," said district Superintendent Donna Peterson. "My next step is to get it rolling and make it go as smoothly as possible for them."

Peterson herself returned Thursday from a two-day trip to the Capitol, where she sat in on public testimony about the budget. She said it was encouraging to hear so many Alaskans say that cuts have gone far enough and time has come to raise revenue. But she described the overall mood as somber and predicted that the Legislature will postpone school funding decisions until the final hours of the session, which is due to adjourn May 14.

That time line is a problem for the district, which is trying to work out staffing levels for next year, contracts with its employees and the budget for next school year, all without any firm numbers on how much revenue it will receive.

The citizen delegation will travel a few people at a time spread over four weeks, departing on Tuesdays and returning on Thursdays. The first to go will be Homer resident Eileen Bechtol on Tuesday.

Unlike the original plan, district employees will not be in Juneau at the same time. However, other Kenai Peninsula officials will be on hand during two of those weeks. Bechtol's trip will coincide with a fly-in sponsored by the Alaska Municipal League, which includes borough and city officials. An April 23-25 trip will be along with the second legislative visit by the Association of Alaska School Boards.

Heinrich and about half a dozen others are due to go to Juneau April 16-18.

"We are hoping to get the amount of money per student increased. But with all of the budget hassles going on I don't have too high of expectations for that," he said.

But he and the others are ready to invest their time in raising the legislators' awareness of the plight of the Kenai Peninsula and the likelihood that the rest of the state's education system won't be safe for long.

"If nothing else, it will be an awareness-building trip," he said.

Heinrich said he bears no ill will about the borough-level confusion over the tickets and the resulting delays.

"It's just our political process we work through," he said.