In 2014 Blatchley Middle School won a 4-star ranking under the Alaska School Performance Index -- an assessment method which has since been replaced. (KCAW photo/Robert Woolsey)

In 2014 Blatchley Middle School won a 4-star ranking under the Alaska School Performance Index — an assessment method which has since been replaced. (KCAW photo/Robert Woolsey)

Staff cuts next year may be a foregone conclusion, as the Sitka School Board wrestles with an uncertain financial future.

At a public hearing Monday night (3-2-15) at Sitka High the board laid out a set of numbers that are basically unchanged from February: A projected deficit next year of $2.2-million.

And although staff reductions remain on the table, disregarding costly new standards is not.

Downloadable audio.

The school board will devote its full attention to the budget two more times before its deadline: A budget worksession in the District Office board room at 6 PM on March 12, and a full budget hearing before its regular meeting, 6 PM on April 7. The 2016 Sitka Schools budget must be submitted to the Sitka assembly by the end of April.

In past years, the school board has managed to make ends meet through attrition, and the redistribution of staff. But board president Lon Garrison’s language this year has become more blunt.

“No matter what, I think we’re going to be looking at reduction in force at some point. Whether it’s 2 people, 10 people, 20 people, I don’t know. At $2.2-million, that would be roughly equal to about 20 positions. I’m not suggesting that’s what we’re going to do. But that’s what that number could be equal to.”

Some members of the public present asked if the district was obligated to continue with the adoption of new state standards, and if so, at what cost.

Garrison responded that the district really had no choice but to deal with the terms of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, or its latest incarnation as “No Child Left Behind.”

“And if we don’t deal with it, if we just say, To hec with y’all, we’re not going to do it! The federal money that comes to the state, and the state money that comes to us, would be sequestered or retained.”

Superintendent Mary Wegner said the federal money in question totaled about $900,000. She said it went primarily into payroll.

“We use most of our Title I money to pay a portion of a teacher’s salary, as well as our Title II money. So rejecting those funds would have a significant impact on our staff.”

Nevertheless, the cost of implementing new standards in Math, Science, English Language Arts, and Social studies is high — an estimated $1.6-million. Wegner said that the math portion was covered by an unexpected increase in student enrollment last year, but the district will have to bear the brunt of the three other subject areas, plus new testing for students and evaluations for teachers.

Although it looks like there’s a potential for a net savings of $700,000, board president Garrison says that’s not the case.

In a follow-up interview with KCAW, Garrison said that the state is moving forward with testing on the new standards, and the district is obligated to prepare students for them.

He also said that state statute requires districts to evaluate their curricula every six years in any case. Adopting the new state standards has compressed that timeline, and consequently increased expenses in the short term.

Superintendent Mary Wegner — also in a follow up interview with KCAW — reports that district teachers have already invested three years in training to the new standards. Changing now, she said, would “give teachers whiplash.”

Garrison told the audience at Monday’s hearing that this was the worst deficit the district has faced in his three terms on the board. But he also stressed that the board was interested in a moderate approach to the problem.

“We are not just going to slash and burn. We’re going to do what we’ve always done, and take a very deliberative look at this and do what’s best for Sitka’s students.”