The Sitka School Board meets next week to make a final decision on next year’s budget. The board is planning to spend more than two-thirds of its savings to help patch a deficit. But even after that move, and some retirements and health insurance changes, it still has nearly $400,000 to make up.
Looking at those numbers, it appears likely the district will need to cut positions and lay off employees.
It’s open swim time at the only pool in Sitka. A handful of people have trickled in just before noon. Pool manager Jane Eidler has been here since 7 a.m.
“I came into work one day,” she said, “and got a phone call from one of the secretaries at Baranof, who said to me, ‘Jane, did you know your job is on the line?’ and I said, ‘What job?’ and she said, ‘Your job.’”
The pool is inside Blatchley Middle School, and Eidler is second on a list of potential cuts the school district could make to balance its budget. Upon hearing that, she made a list of her own.
“There are 55 things that I do that I came up with,” she said.
At the top of the list is scheduling events. No. 3 is checking the chemicals daily. No. 12 is administering swimming competency tests — required to graduate from the school district. Managing lifeguards, keeping the storeroom stocked, handle money and billing, managing lost-and-found, and No. 55: “Trouble shoot anything that comes up.”
“I’m overwhelmed by the thought that all this is going to go down by the wayside,” she said. “People are worried the pool is going to close; it’s not going to close. I’ve been told unofficially — everything’s been unofficial — that maintenance will take over the job of checking chemicals and everything else, and the other stuff will go to the secretary of community schools, which is about 42 things that she has to do.”
It’s worth noting that the school board hasn’t decided one way or another on any of the proposed cuts. But they also haven’t found any extra sources of funding. The legislature did not raise the per-student amount of money school districts get, although there’s some extra funding to handle school security.
So, the list of cuts is still on the table. At the top of that list is the high school activities director’s job. Next is Eidler’s job, and then the Community Schools sports coordinator position. After that, a contract position that calls substitute teachers, a half-time reading coach at Baranof, the entire Middle School shop program, and, at the bottom of the list, two elementary school teachers. Altogether, the list adds up to $556,000 in reductions.
“Well, it’s really uncomfortable. Nobody wants to have to make those kinds of decisions,” said Lon Garrison, president of the school board. “We try not to make it a personal issue at all, but you know those people. They’re your neighbors, they’re your friends, they’re people that you’ve known for a long time. It doesn’t make it easy in any way, shape or form.”
Garrison says the idea is to make initial cuts as far away from the academic classroom as possible — that’s why the two elementary teachers are at the bottom of the list.
But he also says Sitka wants to educate the “whole student, offering programs beyond the regular academic subjects, that can improve a student’s experience at school, or build skills they can use throughout life.
That said, Garrison adds that state and federal mandates are pretty clear about the standards school districts need to meet.
“Generally, those standards are in language arts, reading, math, now science — those academic areas,” he said. “Those end up kind of being the priority areas that you’re going to have to think about making sure you protect.”
The health of a school district has impacts beyond the walls of a school building, says Sitka Mayor Mim McConnell. To her, it’s about a community’s overall economy and quality of life. McConnell’s own children are now grown with kids of their own.
“When they move they’re checking to see what the schools are like,” she said. “That’s one of the main criteria for what town they’re going to go to.”
Every year, the Assembly sends a portion of property tax money to the school system. The city’s budget has not been released yet, but the school district’s budget counts on receiving the same amount of money as last year — roughly $5.5 million.
McConnell says it’s one of many big decisions the city will make as it begins its budget process later this spring.
“I want to hear from people. I really do. I want phone calls, I want e-mails,” she said. “I want to know what is the most important part of our society that they want funded. Is it infrastructure, which includes roads, city buildings, parks, or is it salaries? Is it employees? Is it schools? Is it harbors?”
Garrison, with the school board, says he wants to hear from people, too. The board will take public testimony on Monday, before it makes a final vote on the budget.
Back at the pool, some people are swimming laps, others are moving gently through the water on the other side. Eidler has been full-time manager at the pool about seven years, but has worked here in some capacity since moving to Sitka in 1976.
She seems calm at the prospect of losing her job.
“I feel that if this is the decision, then so be it,” she said. “I’m not going to get stressed out about it. I’m a person that believes in myself. I’ll get something else. I’m not ready to give up working.”
The board meets at 7 p.m. Monday inside school district’s offices attached to Keet Gooshi Heen Elementary School. Members will hear from the public, discuss the budget, and then make final decisions about school funding for the 2013-2014 school year.
Eidler says she’ll be there.
“I don’t know what I’ll tell them,” she said. “I don’t want to sound like I’m whining for my job, but maybe give them a copy of all that I do.”