Homer Alaska - News

Story last updated at 4:06 PM on Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Where will school district find $750,000?

Officials see change in school schedules, state reimbursement, new legislation as part of solution

By McKibben Jackinsky
Staff Writer

With the end of the school year quickly approaching, planning for a new year underway, and adjournment of the 27th Legislature just around the corner, the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District is still struggling to plug a $750,000 gap caused by rising transportation costs.

One partial solution: make busing for the southern district match the rest of the district. In other words, replace the existing one-tier system, one bus making one pickup and delivery, currently used for schools from Ninilchik south, with a two-tier system, one bus making two pickups and deliveries. The two-tier scenario would mean changes to schools' daily start and end times in order to accommodate the sharing of buses between schools.

"For decades the central peninsula has been doing two-tier busing," said Pegge Erkeneff, communications specialist for the school district, after questioning district employees and reviewing budgets for more than 20 years.

The central peninsula includes schools in Kasilof, Soldotna, Kenai, the North Kenai-Nikiski area and Sterling. The eastern peninsula, which includes Moose Pass and Seward, also uses a double-tier approach.

"It was a natural progression to continue to build two-tier busing in as schools were added," said Erkeneff.

Why wasn't it the natural progression for the southern part of the district?

Dave Jones, district assistant superintendent, answered that question by saying it was "one of those things that was done before I came, but anytime you have funding shortages, you look around and say what are the ways we can address it?'"

Imposing the two-tier system would mean six fewer buses for a cost savings of $526,605, a bit short of the $750,000 hole.

Once upon a time, the state completely reimbursed school districts for student transportation costs. That changed in 2003, when a reimbursement formula became part of state statute.

"The state formula reimburses districts for pupil transportation by multiplying each district's per student allocation by the district's annual average daily membership (attendance)," said Elizabeth Nudelman, support services director for the Alaska Department of Education and Early childhood Development.

The per-student allocation was reviewed and increased in fiscal year 2009, and a consumer price index added to the rates for 2010 and 2011, as directed by law.

By that formula, the district's per-student transportation allocation for fiscal year 2012 is $675. The average daily membership is the total number of students attending district schools on a set day in October. To determine transportation costs, the number of students enrolled in a district's homeschool program, such as Connections, are subtracted from the average daily membership.

For the 2011-2012 school year, the district received $5,492,563 from the state, but had to add $750,000 from its own pocket to cover transportation expenditures totaling $6,242,563. Based on numbers provided by First Student, the district's transportation provider, fiscal year 2013 will have a $7,410,500 price tag under the current busing scenario. The six-bus reduction would drop it to $6,883,895.

Senate Bill 182 holds out hope for school districts such as KPBSD that are struggling with rising costs of transporting students to and from schools. The bill is sponsored by the Senate Education Committee and has been in the Senate Finance Committee since Feb. 24.

According to the bill, for fiscal years 2012 and 2013, the per-student reimbursement would increase, said Nudelman. Beginning in 2014, each district would receive an allocation based on reported expenditures for fiscal year 2013 plus an annual consumer price index rather than attendance, Nudelman explained.

For the Kenai Peninsula, passage of SB 182 would raise the per-student transportation allocation to $791 for an estimated reimbursement to the district of $6,358,058. That's more than half a million dollars less than the six-bus reduction proposal.

Several cost-cutting avenues are addressed in the district's pupil transportation guidelines, including elimination of service to all or part of a bus route "when funding or scheduling will not allow the district to cover the cost of running the segment or the entire route." Such an approach has been used by the district in the past, said Jones.

The transportation guidelines also allow for busing of private and charter school students, but that too can be withdrawn if space is not available or it adds cost to the route. Reducing the number of buses would result in more students riding each bus, thereby decreasing extra space, administrators say. That could impact students of Fireweed Academy, the only charter school on the southern peninsula.

"We're going to have to do a lot of carpooling," said Janet Bowen, Fireweed secretary.

"This will hurt our school for sure. It will lessen the options for some families."

Changes being proposed to student transportation will be addressed at the school board's April 2 work session in Soldotna, with a decision to be made at the board's May 7 meeting in Seward.

McKibben Jackinsky can be reached at mckibben.jackinsky@homernews.com.