The Sitka School Board — as usual — is entering its annual budget cycle facing a significant deficit. But unlike past years, there’s no silver bullet from either the state or federal governments that’s likely to save the day.
School board members and the Sitka Assembly met in a joint work session this week (Weds 2-11-15) to run through the numbers, and to look for ways to make ends meet next school year.
This is a worst-case scenario. It always is this time of year, as the district projects its known expenses against its anticipated revenues. Making those numbers match in the past has been equal parts an exercise in restraint — cutting programs like Home Economics in the middle school or a reading tutor in the elementary school — and a waiting game. Waiting for the reauthorization of a federal aid program called “Secure Rural Schools,” or waiting for the state legislature to pony up one-time last-minute cash to assist districts across the state.
School board president Lon Garrison told the assembly that this strategy won’t pan out anymore.
“We’ve come into this often at the $1-1.5-million range. But this is the year where we’re really beginning to run into the wall.”
The wall is a projected deficit of $2.2-million that can not be closed by last-minute state and federal funding alone. At best, Garrison said, if everything went Sitka’s way, the district would still be over $1-million in the red.
That means cuts, or an increase in revenues — neither of which will be popular.
View the Sitka School District’s Preliminary FY 2016 Budget Projections here.
Let’s look at revenues first. School board member Tom Conley noted that Sitka’s property taxes — at 6 mills — are among the lowest in the state. Raising the property tax by 1 mill could generate that $1-million. Learn more about how millage rates work here.
To raise the property tax would require amending Sitka’s charter by a vote of the people.
Municipal administrator Mark Gorman cautioned the board that when the assembly recently proposed a vehicle tax to support roads, there was pushback — “a significant sense of outrage,” according to Gorman. He described the main pressure points in the municipal budget as the schools, the hospital, and deferred maintenance. He urged the assembly and the school board to be very strategic in how they approached the public for additional taxes. “If we go for everything, we’ll probably get nothing,” he said.
The city’s chief administrative officer, Jay Sweeney, noted that the overall tax burden for Sitkans was relatively light. He put it at 7-percent of a family’s income, as opposed to 21 -percent in his previous home in Kentucky. Read a document showing this comparison here.
The main burden, he observed, was the cost of transportation in Alaska — and its effect on grocery prices.
Mayor McConnell seconded this view. She and member Michelle Putz had recently revisited the idea with city staff of eliminating the sales tax on food in Sitka.
“But, the only way you can do that — if you lower it there you’ve got to raise it somewhere else. So if people really wanted to do that, it puts another stressor point on raising up taxes for somebody.”
McConnell’s daughter, Jen Robinson, is a school board member. She echoed the mayor’s sentiments about redistributing Sitka’s tax burden.
“Taxes isn’t finding more money. Taxes is reallocating money. It’s not bringing more money into the city. It’s just shifting it. And that doesn’t help us.”
So now, let’s talk about cuts. The board did not really go there at this meeting, but that day is coming. Looming large on the projector screen in the Keet Gooshi Heen multipurpose room were employee costs, which have increased $3-million dollars in the last 5 years without a significant increase in employees. Garrison attributed the increases to health care benefits and salaries. But, Garrison said, “We’re in the business of teaching, and teachers and staff are always going to be our biggest expense.”
The district has also added activities and programs. Board member Tom Conley suggested rolling back sports to four each for boys and girls in the high school: basketball, baseball, soccer, and wrestling for the boys; basketball, softball, volleyball, and swimming for the girls. Only basketball would be retained in Blatchley, with one trip per year. Gone are football, boys swimming, cross country, and track & field among others. Conley outlined this plan for discussion only. “Ultimately,” he told KCAW, “it’s very much dependent on what students want to do.”
The wholesale elimination of programs will not be popular, but Garrison described cuts as an adjunct to any hope of raising revenues. He and Robinson had just returned from a lobbying trip to the legislature, which is facing a deficit as large as $4-billion. He said legislators are expecting everyone to share the pain.
“It’s a terrible analogy, but they want to see blood in the streets. It’s what people were saying. And I understand that. But at the same time, we are never going to cut our way out of these scenarios. There is no way the state can cut its way out of this.”
The work session with the Sitka Assembly was the School Board’s opening volley in the annual spring budget cycle. The board will meet next with Sitka Tribe on February 17, and will hold an afternoon budget session with district staff the next afternoon, in the Performing Arts Center.
Then, there will be a series of hearings in each school building with parents and other residents, as the board prepares its tightest budget in years.