The Sitka School Board Wednesday night (4-22-15) approved a budget for next year — but left open at least one major question about the district’s finances in the future: Whether or not to keep the Community Schools program.

The $20-million budget passed 5-1, with member Jennifer Robinson opposed. Robinson’s position throughout the budget process has been that the district should maintain reserves of at least $1-million. The budget approved Wednesday by a majority of the board keeps just $966,000 in the bank.

Community Schools, the Blatchley swimming pool, and up to five teaching positions were all on the block as the board wrestled with uncertain finances from the state. Strong public opposition to closing the pool at a hearing two weeks ago prompted the board to reinstate that line item. And there was probably an equal amount of support for Community Schools, the district program that opens school buildings to the public after-hours for any number of sports and activities.

Board president Lon Garrison told KCAW, “We certainly heard from the public that Community Schools is valuable.”

The board ultimately decided to allocate $60,000 to fund Community Schools through the end of September. “That gives us 6 months,” Garrison said, “to find way to fund Community Schools at no cost to the district.”

Garrison said it would likely be a combination of program reductions and user fees that would keep the program going. There is also the possibility that the district would contract out the entire operation of Community Schools.

Next year’s budget also includes a reduction in 3 full-time teaching positions. No one will be laid off; the reductions will come through retirements. Garrison said that he expects the middle school and high school to be most affected by the teaching cuts, in order to preserve teacher-student ratios in the elementary schools.

The budget counts on an additional $1-million from the city, which the assembly seems willing to provide if the right mechanism can be found. The district budget goes next to the assembly, in any case, for final approval.

There’s also one other uncertainty: Final state funding. The state senate Finance committee proposed reducing per-pupil funding by 4-percent. There’s a tug-of-war in progress over that number in the legislature at the moment. Garrison said, “We’re gambling that they’ll put some of that back.”

As a result, the board dropped another $200,000 into the revenue column for next year.

Prior to this year’s budget process, Garrison warned fellow board members and the public that this would be an especially bad budget year, and he says that proved to be the case. “I haven’t slept well for two months,” he said. “It’s a struggle to keep what we have in place.”