Local News

Teachers, technology in spotlight as board closes $1.5-million budget gap

The Sitka School district appears headed for some budget cuts next year.

This was the message Monday night (2-24-14) at a public hearing held at Pacific High School. The board has offered no specific cuts, yet. The hearing was one of several planned to help them take the public’s temperature on district programs in the arts and technology.


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Starting out the annual budget cycle each spring with a substantial deficit is nothing new. Last year, the board tapped $900,000 of district reserves to balance the budget, and the money — and then some — eventually rolled in through a combination of state and federal sources.

But there is no silver bullet for the 2015. The district anticipates roughly $18.5-million dollars in revenues, and $20-million in expenses.

School board president Lon Garrison said staff cuts were on the table, especially if budget uncertainty continued to the end of the school year, when it is time to send teachers their contracts.

“And that time frame is crucial in a number of ways. And one of those is our ability to decide how many teachers we’re going to retain in the coming year. If we make severe cuts to the budget, we’re going to have to tell some of those teachers that they’re probably not going to have a job next year.”

Superintendent Steve Bradshaw said each teacher costs the district about $100,000, including salaries and benefits. Unclassified staff, like office workers and paraprofessionals cost roughly half that much.

About 70-percent of the district budget comes from the state, through a formula called the Base Student Allocation — or BSA. In what Garrison called an “unexpected about-face,” Gov. Sean Parnell has proposed increasing the BSA by $200 over the next three years. Garrison told the audience in Pacific High that the state would have to increase the BSA to $500 to make ends meet next year.

The city is also considering increasing its contribution to schools — but not to the maximum allowed by law — or “funding to the cap,” as it’s called. Sitka historically has funded schools to the cap, but retreated from that policy around 2008, during the economic recession. City administrator Mark Gorman said his budget next year included a three-percent increase for schools.

Garrison appreciated the gesture, but he said it made for some awkward moments when the board flew to Juneau to lobby for state funding.

“It is more difficult to convince a legislator to spend more on education when we’re not spending the full amount that we can in our own community.”

The city’s contribution to schools is roughly $5-million, or just over one-quarter of the district’s budget.

So, with cuts looking likely, the public wanted to protect the things they valued most. For Bruce Christianson, who attended the hearing with his seven-year-old daughter, it was staff.

“The school system here in Sitka, it’s about people and not computers and apps. So if it really gets tight, and you’re looking at cutting a person, please reconsider. That’s what makes this district a place where I want to raise my daughter.”

The fault line — at Monday’s meeting — ran between technology, and pretty much everything else, with several people weighing in on the importance of the art and music programs.

One person — city finance chief Jay Sweeney, speaking as a parent — urged the board to protect the technology budget “at all costs,” even if it meant cutting art and music.

Senior Courtney Lecrone, however, simply urged the board to keep perspective about what is important in school. She noted that there was a big push to keep teacher-student ratios low in elementary school, while high schoolers were coming up short.

“I just moved here. I came from a school that offered Psychology and Botany and all these different things. And coming here and hearing about classes that aren’t at Sitka High anymore, it’s really sad. I’m a senior, and I won’t have to deal with it. But it’s really sad that people will have to deal with it. When you go on to the big world — if you don’t go to college, it’s your last place to get a good education. If you don’t get a good education, then everybody here is just kinda screwed.”

With that, there was no more insight offered at Monday’s hearing.

There will be one more budget work session on March 5, at a venue to be determined, and a final budget hearing on March 27, before the Sitka School Board sends its budget to the assembly.

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