The Sitka school board Monday night (4-22-14) passed its final budget for the coming year, with conservative assumptions on enrollment and state and federal revenue. But it’s not likely that any of the cut programs would be restored, should additional funding come in.
The programs on the chopping block are at Blatchley Middle School and Baranof Elementary. Under the district’s proposed budget, Blatchley would lose either its shop program or Home Economics. The Home Ec teacher doubles as an English as a Second Language — or ESL — instructor. If Home Ec goes, so will ESL, and the instructor would replace a reading teacher who is retiring.
Under this scenario, Baranof Elementary would lose a reading specialist, leaving only two in that building, and two in Keet Gooshi Heen.
The board was not particularly happy to balance the budget by dropping programs. Tim Fulton was worried about losing ground in the lower grades.
“I’m having heartburn with that cut, and one of the reasons is what it does to programs that have shown to be successful, and our goals that we’ve set out here of decreasing that achievement gap.”
The “achievement gap” is the difference in school performance between Native and non-Native students, and between students from different income levels.
Fulton and fellow board member Cass Pook disagreed on which program at Blatchley should go.
Pook thought it should be Home Ec, since it had already been eliminated in the high school.
“I think it makes more sense to have the Home Ec program go before the shop, just because the shop is at the high school, and they can move up. The foods program is already cut at the high school. If we’re going to cut one or the other, I personally would choose the Home Ec program.”
Tim Fulton had a different perspective.
“On the food side of things we need something in place, so it’s better to have it at Blatchley. I understand the feeder piece going into the shop. But at least we’re giving them the opportunity to learn there.”
The budget for next year is just under $20-million, and leaves $400,000 in reserves. There are currently 1,321 students in the district, and the board is playing it safe and assuming that there will be fewer next year.
As of deadline for this story, state funding remains a question mark. The state senate has offered a bill that would inject one-time funding of $500,000 into the district; the house’s education bill would contribute an additional $300,000 to Sitka’s budget, each year for the next several years.
And in an about-face from its position at the beginning of the budget process, the district is including a $500,000 contribution from the federal Secure Rural Schools program — a funding source which was once thought dead, but has been revived by a powerful bloc of senators from the western US who hope to push it through the full Congress soon.
Board president Lon Garrison thought it was appropriate to be cautious.
“And so there’s a lot to figure out yet. I think this conservative approach is a good way to go, without taking teachers out of the classroom. It let’s us kind of move people around a little bit, to see how things are going to work. If enrollment is greater than we anticipate, there’s a possibility we can figure out how this thing might work. I think we have to adopt this budget, which is more conservative than we’ve done in the past. We have to finally bite the bullet and make it happen. And I would urge you to support it, even though you don’t like it.”
When asked by Cass Pook if any of the cut programs would be restored should the district’s finances improve, Garrison responded that it was unlikely. “If we approve this budget, then this is where we’re going to go.”
The school district will introduce a new Math curriculum sometime early in the next school year; an English Language Arts curriculum will follow sometime mid-year. The costs involved in the transition haven’t been pinned down.
Superintendent Steve Bradshaw has estimated that buying new materials for the Common Core might cost over a quarter-million dollars.
He supported the budget as written, even though it cuts programs, because it has a built-in buffer to buy the new curricula. “I’d rather make a couple of tough choices now, than eight next year,” he said.
The school district budget must be transmitted to the Sitka assembly for approval by May 1.