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Sitka schools to cut 4 positions from budget, lay off 1

SITKA, ALASKA
Officially, Wednesday night’s school board vote was the final approval of the district’s 2011-12 budget. But there are still variables that could affect the final numbers. We’ll get to that in a second. First, here’s a quick look at the plan as approved.

The School District upped its estimated student count by 10, which translates to an extra $85,000. It’s also planning to use half a million dollars from its reserves, and is counting on an increase in state funding for career and technical education. Those things helped bring down a $1.3 million budget gap.

The rest of the gap was made up by cutting expenses. Cutting two full-time certified teaching positions makes up about $170,000. One of those is a special education teacher who has resigned, the other cut is the director of the Southeast Alaska Career Center. Karen Martinson holds that position, and is expected to be reassigned to another position in the school district.

Two classified positions also were cut: A secretary from the district’s maintenance building will move to Pacific High School to replace someone retiring there. The district will also combine two positions at Sitka High School: The registrar and the counseling department secretary. That will result in one person being laid off.

Also cut is $40,000 from special education specialist contracts. Superintendent Steve Bradshaw says the need for those services has grown tremendously in the last four or five years, but that it’s beginning to drop a little. He says he thinks the District will be fine by pulling back in that area.

“And if not, then I’ll have to come back to the board next year and say I’m going to take some out of reserve to cover that cost,” Bradshaw said. “And then of course, the one that really bothers me – I mean I hate losing positions but I understand that, with drops in enrollment and that type of thing – but the cut in the activities is a tough one.”

The budget cuts $50,000 from student activities. The majority of that goes to coaching stipends and to supporting programs that are more expensive to run in this part of the state.

“When your kids are traveling the way our kids have to travel in Southeast Alaska, the costs are just incredible,” Bradshaw said. “To get a team over to Juneau, or to get a team down to Ketchikan, or to get a team to Prince of Wales Island to play Craig or Klawock or whoever – it’s expensive. One trip can cost you $5,000 or $6,000 by the time you take a team down there.”

Bradshaw says what’s left in the activities budget will either be spread out evenly, or the district will look at cutting some student activities. If that happens, Bradshaw says he’d like students to have a say on which activities should go.

But that conversation is on hold for now.

A lot of the overall budget depends on the city’s annual contribution to the District. This year it’s expected to be about $5 million — 2 percent below last year’s amount, and well below the roughly $7 million maximum the city can give.

The city and the school district also typically split money from the federal government under the Secure Rural Schools act. That’s money given to communities located near national forests. It’s sometimes referred to as timber receipts, or stumpage. Most years, half of it goes to the city for roads, half goes to the district. This year, the school district plans to ask for 85 percent rather than its usual 50 percent.

Originally, the district was going to ask for 75 percent, but it recently learned Sitka as a whole will be receiving less money than originally thought. School board president Lon Garrsion says the new amount from the federal government was $80-thousand dollars below where they thought the funding would be.

“Did they just write the wrong check, or use the wrong year?” Garrison said. “Come to find out, it was this per-capita income adjustment, so as per-capita income goes up, the Secure Rural Schools funding was decreased. It was part of the algorithm or the formula for determining this that we were never aware of.”

School board members noted at Wednesday’s meeting that the overall budget does make the 2-percent cut the city suggested, and that if the budget picture ends up better than thought, that the district would consider giving back some of the extra timber money.

Also on the horizon is the possibility that the state will raise the amount of per-student funding. Other school districts around the state are counting on a bump of about $100 in that level. Sitka, though hopeful it will happen, is not holding its breath on paper.

Bradshaw, the superintendent, says he can’t imagine the state won’t give something to schools, especially given the high price of oil that translates into higher income for state coffers.

So the school board has voted on its budget. Now, Bradshaw says, it’s up to others.

“We’re waiting to see what the Assembly will do with the recommendations as far as the timber receipts, we’re waiting to see what the state would do as far as the foundation formula,” he said. “If it were to get through the House and the Senate both, then the governor’s got 30 days to sign it, and of course the governor didn’t put that in his original budget, and said he had concerns about performance in the state. It will be interesting. There are no guarantees the governor will sign it. The politics to be played about the performance scholarship … There’s a lot of games to be played over there before we finally figure out what they’re going to do with the budget.”

The plan approved Wednesday night by the school board will go to the Sitka Assembly by the end of the month. It will then have 30 days to determine how much money it will give to the school district.
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