The Sitka School Board’s decision to cut the Community Schools program drew a protest from the city on Wednesday night (4-15-15).
That disagreement led the board to postpone a final vote on the district budget.
School board member Tom Conley opened the meeting by moving to cut the Community Schools Program, which opens up school buildings for use after hours. The cut would return about $235,000 to the district’s reserve fund.
The board had voted at an earlier meeting to spare both Community Schools and the Blatchley pool by drawing down reserves, but board members worried they had left the reserve fund so depleted it might interfere with the district’s cash flow.
Board President Lon Garrison and member Jennifer Robinson joined Conley in voting to cut Community Schools. “I don’t think we have a choice,” Garrison said. “We can’t have it all anymore. I wish we could.”
Tim Fulton and Cass Pook voted against the cut, arguing that the youth programs run through Community Schools benefit those kids who need it most, and who may not have anywhere else to be after school.
Pook said she appreciates hearing from parents. “But I cannot forget the kids whose parents don’t call,” she said. “And those kids end up with behavioral health issues. And by cutting community schools, that problem is going to increase.”
Fulton said he could not vote against Community Schools while keeping the performing arts center in the district budget. He made a motion to cut the performing arts center itself, but no other board member would second it.
City Administrator Mark Gorman spoke out strongly against cutting Community Schools. If the district washes its hands of the program, he said, it would fall to the city to find a way to support it.
He said he felt like the city had been handed a hand grenade with the pin pulled out of it.
“In the next couple weeks, our Assembly chambers are going to be packed with basketball players, volleyball players, softball players, saying, what are you all going to do to make sure we have a Community Schools program?” Gorman said.
He reminded the board that the city is considering cutting services or even positions to come up with an additional $1-million for the district, and asked the school board not to walk away from its role in supporting community programs.
“I feel that we are doing the heavy lifting on behalf of the school,” Gorman said. “And didn’t feel that that was being reciprocated by the actions tonight…We have to work on collaborative solutions, and not just pass them to the city.”
Gorman added that any cut to the Blatchley pool would likely also fall to the city to resolve.
The Blatchley pool remains in the budget, for now, but the half-time administrator it shared with the Community Schools program is cut, and it’s unclear how the district would fill that position.
Robinson floated a motion to cut one more teacher position to fund the pool administrator. This would be on top of three full-time teacher positions the board has already cut. Sitka Schools Superintendent Mary Wegner said all the cuts would come from attrition, rather than layoffs.
But Susan Brandt-Ferguson, a parent and a music teacher at Keet Gooshi Heen Elementary School, spoke for many in the room when she said that a reduction in staff, even by attrition, hits the schools hard.
“A cut in teachers affects all of us,” she said. “And that shuffling is not nothing. And I know you know that, but I have to repeat that, because it does change what we’re able to do for students.”
Robinson expressed her frustration with the situation in which the board finds itself.
“I make a motion to keep the pool. Everyone’s going to come forward and say, ‘No, we need to keep the pool,'” she said. “So if I say, O.K., well then, let’s let go of a teacher so that we can keep the pool, everyone’s going to come forward and say, ‘No, we need to keep the teacher.'”
The board voted down Robinson’s motion. They voted unanimously, however, to reinstate the cold water survival program, at a cost of about $9,000.
In the end, Conley suggested postponing a final vote on the budget, given the city’s objections and the uncertain status of the state budget. “Maybe we’re acting with a little bit too much haste,” he said. “We could be looking at the possibility that the money coming in from the legislature will be higher than what we’re expecting.”
“It also quite possible that it’ll be lower than we’re expecting,” he added.
The State House has proposed about $32-million in education cuts statewide, while the State Senate has proposed about $80-million in cuts. Lawmakers are meeting this week in Juneau to hash out those differences. Under the Senate plan, the Sitka Schools would face a deficit of about $3-million next year.
Meanwhile, the Sitka Schools did get one piece of good news. On Tuesday (4-14-15), the U.S. Senate passed a two-year reauthorization of the federal program, Secure Rural Schools. The district estimates that will mean about $650,000 for the Sitka School District.
The School Board will meet again on Wednesday, April 22, at 7 p.m. in the Keet Gooshi Heen Elementary School multipurpose room.