Sitka School Board President Lon Garrison talks to a handful of parents and staff about the district's 2013 budget on Thursday. The slide behind him shows the district's expected deficit, during a public hearing on Feb. 9. (KCAW file photo)

The Sitka School Board is pulling more than a million dollars out of reserves in order to balance next year’s budget.

The district will cut one full-time special education aide next year, and add a special education teacher and elementary teacher. Superintendent Steve Bradshaw says the additions are necessary to keep class sizes manageable.

The district’s 2013 spending plan was approved by the school board Wednesday night. It pulls more than $960,000 dollars from the district’s operating fund balance, and another $81,000 from its transportation reserve.

It also counts on an additional intensive needs student, which brings more funding.

The plan chosen was the middle of three options that ranged in severity. The budget as approved by the board leaves $250,000 in reserve. School Board president Lon Garrison says that makes the school board uncomfortable.

“It’s the lowest we’ve taken our reserves in many years,” Garrison said. “I think at one point, maybe 10 years ago, they’d gone down to $189,000. There’s some real risks with going that low.”

Those risks include unforeseen expenditures. But Garrison also says bigger expenses come due at different times of the year, and the reserve funds act as a cushion for the district’s cash flow.

Garrison says spending down such a large percentage of the reserve, and cutting the special education aide position, are necessary choices, not ideal ones.

“At least we’re not taking specific instruction out of the classroom. And that’s what we were trying to avoid if we could,” he said.

The school board put off its budget vote by a week, in order to find out if extra money might be coming from the city. It did.

The Sitka Assembly approved forward funding of $300,000 Tuesday night. The money will be paid back if the district’s budget picture ends up better than expected. Garrison says the school board appreciates the forward funding.

“It gives us some confidence about the choices we could make,” he said. “It did give us the ability to consider moving forward with trying to maintain programs as best we can.”

The school board approved its final budget, but a lot remains unknown.

The school district is counting on flat funding from the city’s annual contribution – about $5 million. But the Assembly has yet to decide the amount. The state legislature is still considering bills that could boost the amount of money-per-student, and Congress has yet to decide on a key piece of federal funding.

Those factors could change the picture drastically for Sitka Schools, in either direction.

Mike Hanley is commissioner of the state’s Department of Education and Early Development. He was in Sitka on Thursday to participate a march against domestic violence, and ook a moment to answer some questions about education funding, too.

The Parnell administration has opposed a three-year increase in the base student allocation, or BSA, instead favoring year-to-year support. Hanley says the long-term solution for education funding is tough.

Hanley: “We do have a responsibility, a core responsibility, to have a solid education opportunity for our kids in the state. We also look at the realities of what our future looks like with declining oil prices. That’s a tough balance. It’s not OK to necessarily put money in that we can’t afford tomorrow. We need to find a way to continue to support the system in a way that we can that’s sustainable, and that’s the struggle we’re having right now. Some would say we need to fund it until we run out. Others would say we need to look at the future and say we need to fund it carefully. That is the question that’s being debated so heavily now in the legislature.”
KCAW: There are a lot of questions about the increase in the BSA. What do you think is going to happen and what would you like to see happen?
Hanley: “It’s hard to say what’s going to happen. Things are changing all the time right now in the legislature. I’m there watching it closely. As you’re aware, the governor would like to see targeted funding for education to meet direct needs our school districts have. And yet there’s the other side that’s really working toward a BSA increase, which is a foundational increase that stays in there and is built upon. It’s hard to say what’s going to come out at the end of the day.”