A significant percentage of the gap will likely be closed by pulling money out of the district’s reserve fund. And a very different budget picture could be painted once lawmakers at the state and federal level make decisions on the various streams of money that flow to school districts.

One of those streams is the Secure Rural Schools and Communities Act, which will put $590,000 from the federal government into Sitka’s coffers next year. But its future is uncertain. The act expires this year, and although its renewal is included in President Barack Obama’s budget, it still has to go through Congress.

U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski is among those who will be dealing with the Act. She’s the ranking Republican on the Senate Energy Committee, which handles the Secure Rural Schools Act.

During a recent visit to Sitka, she spent a couple hours at Blatchley Middle School, where she met with students, before hearing later in the day from school officials about the district’s funding needs.

Before she faced questions and concerns from the grown-ups on Wednesday, U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski spent some time in the lunchroom at Blatchley Middle School.

“Did any of you vote for me in November?” she asked the students, who cheered. “Liar, liar, pants on fire! You did not. … You don’t have to vote for me in order for me to work for you. You don’t have to be 18 years old in order for me to work for you. That’s what it means for me to be your representative back in Washington, D.C.”

Murkowski asked the sixth and seventh graders in the lunchroom what kinds of things they thought would make Sitka better. A shopping mall, offered one student. Slow down the traffic on Katlian and Kaagwaantaan streets, said another.

After lunch she went on a tour of the building, stopping in Kerry McAdams's eighth grade social studies class. Student Jack Petersen asked her if she was dreading coming to middle school, of all places.

“Now, see, you are stereotyping middle school,” Murkowski said. “I happen to love middle school and I will tell you why: I’m working in government now, but when I was a young girl going through school and going to college I decided I wanted to be a teacher. I’ve always wanted to be a teacher and I decided that I wanted to be a middle school teacher.”

If Murkowski taught middle school at Blatchley, she’d probably be using something called a Promethean Board, like the one in math teacher Deb Riva’s classroom. It’s a giant screen, and on this day, students are using it to work on fractions.

The students take a special marker and use it to drag digital numbers around the screen, solving the problems. While her students are working out a problem in small groups, Riva comes over to talk to Murkowski about an education technology conference she just attended.

RIVA: “I came away with a tip that somebody said, which was, try as a teacher to not touch the board. Have only the kids touch the board. That’s my goal for the rest of the year.”

MURKOWSKI: “That’s great though because it gets them absolutely engaged in the problem solving and the collaboration that goes on with it.”

RIVA: “Exactly. And we fall into our old ways, which is to stand in front and be the one that gives the lesson. It’s so much better for them when they’re the ones that are doing it.”

Murkowski has said she wants to get to every school district in the state. Sitka Schools Superintendent Steve Brashaw says having a United States Senator familiar with what goes on inside buildings like Blatchley can only help districts like Sitka.

“Her getting an opportunity to see what it is that we’re spending our money on, why it’s so important to do the things that we do, I think it’s good stuff and it makes it easier for her when she goes back to D.C. to say ‘Wait a minute, all the things that we’re reading about when it comes to public education are not necessarily true. There’s some good things going on in the buildings around the state of Alaska,'” Bradshaw said.

One of the things Murkowski will be addressing when she gets back to Washington is the Secure Rural Schools and Communities Act. It’s money the federal government gives communities located near National Forests, where the prevalence of public land has cut down on the tax revenue those communities can collect. The law expires this year, but is up for renewal in President Barack Obama’s budget.

During a meeting Wednesday afternoon, Sitka School Board President Lon Garrison told Murkowski that keeping that money in the budget once it gets to Congress could be an uphill battle.

“Every dollar is important,” Garrison told her. “And those are dollars that come to the school district and also go to the city and borough.”

Murkowski says the bill falls under the jurisdiction of the Energy Committee where she’s the ranking member. The committee is led by Senators from western states, too, who have an interest in seeing the law renewed. Here’s Murkowski talking to reporters after the meeting.

“Senator Binghaman, who’s from New Mexico, Senator Wyden from Oregon, both real advocates in the past on helping to advance some longer term proposals for Secure Rural Schools, so I’m hopeful that we’ll be successful once again,” she said.

Congress gets to work on the federal budget in the weeks ahead.
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