The budget picture for the Sitka School District next year is starting to look a little less dire. What started out as a projected $1.5-million deficit just a few weeks ago, has been teased down to $44,000 — but only by drawing on over half of the district’s savings account.

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It was just a budget work session (3-5-14), but pretty much standing room only in the district office board room.

Sitka superintendent Steve Bradshaw and the district’s business manager, Cassee Olin, had nipped, trimmed, and tucked a budget worksheet that now was showing only $44,000 in red ink next year.

The savings come from several sources: The retirement of six teachers at the top of the pay scale is worth $150,000; the district is catching a break on its insurance rates next year, for a savings of $70,000. Some adjustments to the contract for new superintendent Mary Wegner — who won’t need moving expenses, for instance — amounted to $25,000.

The only proposed staffing cut is the director of Community Schools. Current director Scott McAdams already splits his time as high school Activity Director. Bradshaw said the district office had already absorbed most of the community schools responsibilities, but he said, “we absolutely can’t do without an activities director.”

But the biggest difference came on the revenue side: Bradshaw would like the board to transfer $900,000 out of savings into the operating fund — just like it did last year.

The idea did not sit well with the board, since it would leave the district with only a little over $700,000 in the bank. The district will be implementing new curriculum materials in Math and Language Arts next year — the so-called “Common Core” — and that’s expected to cost up to $300,000 for new books and teacher training, which would have to be paid out of reserves.

And unlike last year, there is little hope of a federal windfall in the form of the Secure Rural Schools Act.

Board members asked Bradshaw to contemplate some scenario that involved deeper cuts than the savings they had been shown so far, in order to protect the district’s reserves.

Bradshaw, with thirteen years under his belt, was reluctant to go there.

“We’ve gone through this every year, as some of our people have pointed out, and every year we come back and we’re okay. And so if we go out there and cry wolf again this year… If you mandate that I find $600,000, we’ll go out and work on $600,000. We’re sitting in a community that has a fairly decent reserve compared to most communities around this country. We’re sitting in a state that has fairly decent reserves. And I’ve always felt like: If we got to that point where we got back and we had 90 less kids than projected, we could still go to this community and get through that school year. Now they may not like it, but this community has always stepped forward when it comes to education.”

Bradshaw said there had been years when the district went fairly deep into its reserves — one year going as low as $180,000. Olin, asked for her opinion, said the optimum amount for Sitka to keep in the bank was $500,000, or about one payroll.

Still, board member Jennifer Robinson wanted to know what was really at stake if the district had fewer students than expected next year, or if the legislature — contrary to expectations — failed to pass any increase in per-pupil funding for schools.

She wanted real talking points for her next trip to Juneau.

“I would kind of like to know what are the things that we would be faced with cutting if we can’t come up with enough money to cover these things? I’m going to be sitting down in offices with legislators, and I’d like to be able to say, Look, we have to pay for this Math curriculum, we have to pay for these teacher evaluations. If we don’t get money from you, who have mandated us to make these changes, then this is what we’re looking at cutting from our district, and this is the impact that it’s going to have.”

Ultimately, Bradshaw agreed to find $44,000 in cuts which, he said, “won’t hurt anybody.”

The board has scheduled one more budget hearing for March 27, but president Lon Garrison said it was unlikely that it will be the last. With economic uncertainties remaining over the adoption of the new Common Core, teacher evaluations, and online testing — and a big question mark hovering over this year’s legislature — board members thought it wise to wait and see just a bit longer on the 2015 budget.