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FNSB School District's homeschool program raises budget questions

Increased public funding for homeschooling is on the Fairbanks North Star Borough school board’s agenda tonight. At a worksession last night, school administrators said there is a lot of misunderstanding in the community about the spending.

There are currently 740 students enrolled in the district’s homeschool program. Called B.E.S.T. for Building Educational Success Together, the program provides support and materials to parents who teach their children at home.

Chief School Administrator Karen Melin says the program is actually a moneymaker for the district.

“The district does receive about 90% of the BSA for each B.E.S.T. student.”

So that means the State of Alaska gives the district 90% of the Base Student Allocation to each homeschooler. And Melin says the costs of homeschooling are much less to the district than students in brick-and-mortar classrooms.

“So in the current school year, the B.E.S.T. program will generate almost $2 million in excess revenue. Once all of its expenses are paid,” she said.

In BEST, the ratio is 150 to one certified teacher. In brick-and-mortar classes it is 1 to 25-32.

She said she has been asked repeatedly why the budget item for the homeschool program is more than half a million dollars, especially at a time when the district is closing brick-and-mortar schools, and proposing to cut back on music and art.

Chief Operations Officer, Andreu DeGraw says the increase in the B.E.S.T. budget category is “right-sizing,” the funding for the homeschool program after a second rocky COVID year.

The homeschool program leaped in enrollment during the first year of the pandemic. Last summer, it looked like most kids would be back in schools, so the district projected 300 kids in the program, but it ended with more than double that.

“We did not adjust last year because of significant movement in best student numbers last year it fluctuated,” he said.

The projected enrollment for next year is 725 students, about 15 fewer than this year. And the budget assumes there will be one more certified teacher added for next year, for a total of 8.

Each student in the program is eligible for reimbursement could get reimbursed for educational expenses like books, materials, swim lessons, for example. Primary K-3 graders can apply for up to $2,200 per year, Secondary 4-8 graders get $2,400 and 9th through 12th graders could ask for $2,600. So in the budget, the school district has to plan for the full amount for every student, even if they never apply for any reimbursement.

Chief Operations Officer, Andreu DeGraw says the amount in the budget is not actually an increase.

“These have been asked many times. And so we want to make sure this is very explicitly clear tonight, the $652,976 on page 177 of the budget, Reporting unit 501 - - every dime of those expenditures are currently existing already in our current-year budget. There is no increase. This is not an increase in any way, shape or form in any position,” he said.

“These are existing positions and expenses that have been relocated from other parts of the budget. So, I just want that to be really clear for the public, and I think I'm answering some of the questions from prior testimony.” 

DeGraw says the projection is for next year’s BEST students to request $1.2 million in reimbursements for educational materials, so at least that much must be in the budget. However, the state per-student payment multiplied by 725 kids is $3.9 million in revenue.

That’s a lot of arithmetic. The FNSB School Board is meeting twice or more each week as they parse out next year’s budget department by department. But homeschooling is likely to come up again at tonight’s worksession.

Robyne began her career in public media news at KUAC, coiling cables in the TV studio and loading reel-to-reel tape machines for the radio station.