The Sitka School District is facing a shortfall of up to $2.73-million for the upcoming school year — unless last-minute funding comes through from the city, the state, or Washington D.C.
At a School Board work session last night (3-19-15), Superintendent Mary Wegner laid out a range of options. In the best-case scenario, the district might skate by on efficiencies and its reserves. The worst-case scenario includes laying off as many as nine teachers, and closing the Blatchley Pool or the Performing Arts Center.
How much the district has to cut depends on how much money comes in from the federal government, the state, and the city. And as School Board President Lon Garrison told the meeting, right now, all of that is up in the air.
“We know what we can control in terms of expenditures,” Garrison said. “What we don’t know is what we have coming in as revenue.”
Let’s start with the federal government: Sitka has historically received funding through the Secure Rural Schools program. That program helps communities with a lot of federal timberland within their boundaries. Because that land can’t be taxed, the federal government chips in with additional education funding.
But the program has not been reauthorized for FY2016. And last year’s payment is up in the air. If both of those payments come in, that would be about $770,000 for the district. If they don’t, that money will have to come from somewhere else.
Next, there’s the State of Alaska. Last year, the legislature passed a one-time funding increase, which would have injected more than $362,000 into the Sitka School District. But Governor Bill Walker cut that funding in the budget he submitted to the legislature this year, and so far it hasn’t been reinstated. Some portion of it may still materialize, but for now, the district can’t count on it.
Finally, there’s the City of Sitka. Last year, the City gave the District about $5.3-million. That’s about $1.9 million below the amount allowed under state law. Superintendent Mary Wegner told the School Board that city staff are exploring ways to increase Sitka’s contribution. But, she said, that’s by no means a sure thing.
“In recent discussions with Mark Gorman, our city administrator, and Jay [Sweeney, the finance director], we know that the city is interested in looking at ways that they may be able to help us move forward with another additional $1-million,” Wegner told the Board. “Again, there’s no guarantee. This isn’t something that’s been discussed at the Assembly level yet. We just know that there’s interest in looking at helping us from the city.”
Wegner laid out a range of options before the district.
If all of the funding comes through — the federal Secure Rural Schools money, the state one-time funding, and a million dollars from the city — then the district could get away with cuts to travel, supplies and equipment, cost savings from impending retirements, and by dipping into reserves.
If everything except last year’s Secure Rural Schools money comes in, and the city can only chip in about $750,000, then the district might also have to cut the Community Schools program, which allows community access to school buildings after-hours. And the district might cut two half-time positions — one in the district office, and one in maintenance. Wegner said the aim is to start with cuts as far away from the classroom as possible.
“The goal was, where can we be more efficient and effective with our resources, and not hurt the instructional program?” she said. “So we don’t want to cut things with the efficiencies that are core to our instructional program, but we wanted to make sure that we were smart in how we were moving forward, given the dire financial situation that we are in and will be in for awhile.”
But those are the best-case scenarios.
Say none of the federal and state money comes in, and the city can only raise its contribution by $250,000. In that case, the district would be looking at truly drastic cuts: nine-and-a-half teacher positions; half of an administrator position; one-and-a half support staff positions. The district might also have to close the Blatchley pool, Sitka’s only swimming pool. Take away that $250,000 in additional city money, and the district might have to close the Performing Arts Center, too.
About 30 people turned out for the work session, and the audience was audibly dismayed by this scenario. School Board member Tim Fulton encouraged people to lobby the city and state to step up with more funding.
“Get the word out there, people, that this is what we’re up against,” Fulton said. “It takes a community to raise our children, and we need to pull together to make this work.”
The Sitka School Board will hold a public hearing on the budget on Tuesday, April 7.