That was the question hanging over a joint work session between the Sitka School Board and Sitka Assembly Thursday night (4-10-14).
The board presented a draft budget to the assembly with a modest increase in local support to schools — less than $200,000 — but also delivered a clear message that more was needed.
They’re calling themselves the “Education Legislature,” but Juneau has not settled on a level of school support this year that most districts consider adequate, and there was a serious attempt to amend the constitution to allow public education dollars to flow to private schools — including religious schools.
This was the backdrop for two recent lobbying trips to Juneau by Sitka school board members Lon Garrison and Jennifer Robinson.
During the work session with the assembly, Robinson said her efforts to advocate for more state funding for local schools were undermined by one issue: Sitka does not contribute the maximum funding allowed by law to its local schools.
Robinson is also director of the Sitka Chamber of Commerce, as well as daughter of Sitka mayor Mim McConnell.
She told the assembly she did not often get on a soapbox, but Sitka’s failure to fully fund schools locally was beginning to take a toll on her.
There are two things that I considered when I moved here: It wasn’t how beautiful it is; it wasn’t that this has been my home. Number one, my family was here, and Number two, Sitka has an amazing school system. It’s a place I know my kids are going to get a great education. If either one of those hadn’t been here, I would not have moved back to Sitka. Because as a single parent, it’s not worth the struggle of trying to survive without family support, or where my kids are not going to get a quality education. I have to pay so much to live here, and I have to work so hard to make it happen, that without education it wouldn’t have been worth it. I’d rather live someplace else where I can afford to live, and can make sure my kids are well-educated and can be successful. And I’m not the only one that feels this way. And if we don’t make sure that we are funding the programs our kids need, we are going to be losing more and more families. There has to be a way to make a living, and there has to be quality schools for families to stay here. I don’t care how affordable the housing is, or what kind of economic development we bring in — if we kill the school system now, we’re not going to keep the families long enough to get to that point.
Robinson asked assembly members — as they prepare to write their own budget — to consider what they were spending money on that “might not be as important as schools.”
The City of Sitka contributed a little over $5-million in funding to schools this year — about $1.6-million less than the “cap,” or the amount allowed by state law.
The city contributes thousands more to the district in ways that don’t count against the cap — through Community Schools, for example, and sports activities. But Robinson and Garrison said they repeatedly were questioned by legislators about Sitka’s failure to fund education to the cap.
Assembly members had no direct response to the board’s appeal. Pete Esquiro was concerned that the district was reducing staff at Baranof and Blatchley.
He questioned the wisdom of cutting people, while pursuing technology goals that would put a computer tablet in every child’s hands in the near future.
Board president Lon Garrison responded that the landscape of education was changing.
There’s no turning back. We’ve taken the exit on the new digital freeway. And there really is no going back. And the way education will be delivered: By the time the kindergarteners this year graduate, my guess is that well over 50-percent of them will go on to get higher education and it will all be distance-delivered. Brick and mortar is fast disappearing, and the world is changing quicker than you can imagine. Things that we did in 2007 and 2008 — it seems like decades ago, especially when you figure that the iPhone was introduced in 2007. It’s difficult to get a grasp on that — I grant you that, Pete. I hear a lot about It’s the People, and I totally agree.
The work session was a more cordial exchange between the two elected bodies than it’s been in the past. In fact, assembly member Mike Reif complimented the board on it’s conservative approach toward its use of reserves, and its expectations for state funding.
One notable difference with past meetings was that outgoing superintendent Steve Bradshaw did not speak until he was invited to share his opinion by the assembly. Over his thirteen years on the job, Bradshaw has occasionally used this forum to press the assembly hard. His swan song, however, was conciliatory.
And I know you’re faced with tough choices. I know the budget’s tight. But I also know that we find ways to get the things done that we want in life. Whether that’s in our personal budgets, our state budgets, community budgets, or federal budgets. And far too often you hear people providing lip service to what’s best for education. This community has always supported education. From Pacific High School to the auditorium, to everything else we’ve asked for. So I would urge you in the future to continue to do that. Because that, I believe, is our goal, is to try to make each generation a little bit better. And again the only way I think we can do that is to teach children to think, to be creative, and to be proud of who they are and where they’re from.
One bright note in school funding this year is Secure Rural Schools. The federal program for states with significant National Forest Lands has funneled $500,000 into the Sitka district over the last several years. Secure Rural Schools was considered a non-existent possibility at the beginning of this budget cycle, but powerful western senators have revived it. The school board is confident enough to add the money to its revenues, and reduce the amount it now expects to take out of reserves to balance the budget to $400,000.
The school board will hold a final budget hearing on April 21, and submit a final budget to the assembly shortly thereafter.