Mary Wegner, during her job interview with the Sitka School Board. (KCAW photo/Robert Woolsey)

Mary Wegner, during her job interview in 2014 with the Sitka School Board. (KCAW photo/Robert Woolsey)

Tonight, the Sitka School Board will meet in executive session to finalize contract negotiations with Superintendent Mary Wegner. At their meeting last Monday (01-11-16), the board gave her high marks during her annual performance review. But as the conversation stretched past midnight, the board decided to adjourn. 

Downloadable audio.

The meeting, which lasted over six hours, had an ambitious agenda to begin with. There was a budget to inspect, non-discrimination clauses to debate, and to cap it all off, a review of Superintendent Mary Wegner performance.

Tim Fulton is the Sitka School Board president and said tonight’s meeting will pick up where the board left off. “We still need to give her some direction on what we would like to see her do professionally, personal growth, and then we work through the contract part of it – whether we extend it for another year, whether we give her a raise.”

Last year, Wegner received a 1.5 percent raise, bringer her salary up $121,8000 a year. Her contract was also extended through 2017. But this year, with education dollars from the state and the city still in flux, she requested the board not give her a raise.

Wegner commented, “You know we’re in these dire times right now and it’s all unknown and so I really felt that was only prudent of me to fiscally responsible in my request.” In lieu of a raise, she asked for a change in contract language. Wegner would not tell KCAW what that language entailed, but said it had no financial bearing on the district.

And speaking of finances, the School Board has begun to navigate the nitty gritty details for the FY 16 Operating Budget. At their meeting, Business manager Cassee Olin presented a revised draft, line by line.

To see the FY16 Operating Budget Revised Draft, click here

The good news: the school district has $23,739 more than originally planned, due to a higher student enrollment.In October, the enrollment total was 1315 students — 10 more than originally budgeted for. Through the state’s public school foundation formula, which pays districts per pupil, the district will receive an additional $490,003 from the state.

And here’s the not-so good news: on top of $345,505 deficit for FY16, the district spent an additional $466,265 over its budget. As Olin explained, some of this is due to retirement and new hires. But most of this because of an anticipated rate increases for health insurance renewal. 

“Our plan currently renews on April 1st and therefore the current rates that we are at – I do not know what April, May or June will be – that has to be paid off in this year’s budget,” Olin explained. “It’s an estimate at this time. And it’s a high estimate, based off of what Premera and our broker are currently estimating.”

When you balance all these figures, the district is anticipating a net operating FY16 budget loss of $321,766. To make up for this, they plan to pull that money from the district’s general fund. In the end, the revised budget passed unanimously, 5-0.

The School Board also began forecasting the enrollment number for next year.

To see a chart of fluctuating student enrollment over the past 16 months, click here

The whole budget is built around this number and the activity of estimating it has a particular Goldilocks quality to it. Too high and the payments from the state – once they figure out your district has less students then anticipated – are too small. 

Wegner explained, “We don’t want to have to be faced in August of having to let teachers go. And that’s what happens if you budget too high. You don’t want to budget too low that then you’ve cut where you don’t need to. Always airing on the side of caution when to comes to setting the budget number I think is prudent. ”

With that in mind, Fulton led the charge. He said, “It jumps out to me that the 1,300 is a good figure to start with. I mean it’s really just crystal ball stuff. Gut feelings. Use the force.”

The board settled on a preliminary figure of of 1,300 students with 38 intensive enrollment students.

The board also approved of their legislative priorities for the year. Click here to see the draft. 

It’s a slimmer document than last year’s and was prepared by member Tom Conley. The board’s main request was to restore the $50 cut to the Base Student Allocation, made in the end game negotiations of last year’s session.

In his notes, Conly reminded the state that three teaching positions in Sitka had to be cut as a result.  He also called attention to the requests that were shelved, among them $1.5 million to get the district curriculum aligned with new state standards in math and language arts. He said, “We’re considerably more frugal in terms of what is being requested from the state. We will also be talking to the city in terms of what they’d be willing to contribute.”

The only capital request was $609,000 for a new roof and siding for the covered play area at Keet Goshi Heen Elementary School, as well as improvements to playground equipment.

And as a footnote, Conley wrote, “Your children will tell you it would be AWESOME  if you finished the second session in fewer than 90s days.” The April 19th end date, Conly pointed out, gives local school boards little time to configure their budgets, “closely tied with the state’s bottom line,” he added.

In Old Business, the board was divided on whether to introduce new language to the district’s nondiscrimination and harassment policies – prohibiting either on the basis of gender identity and sexual orientation.

Fellow member Cass Pook opposed the addition, preferring the board wait until the Association of Alaska School Boards updates its language around gender and sexual orientation – expected to come out soon.

Pook said, “If it’s not required, we don’t want to make ourselves more liable by [changing] wording. Trust that AASB is working on this and that they’re going to do their job and we should wait. I don’t really see that our community is not embracing sexual orientation or gender identity. So I’m not sure why we’re having this discussion.

Fulton commented that, if Sitka is indeed tolerant place, the board should adopt policies to reflect that. Board member Eric Van Cise felt it could protect students should an incident arise. “I think our community is very sensitive to these things, but that doesn’t mean that somebody may not arrive tomorrow who doesn’t feel the same way,” he said.

In the end, the expanded nondiscrimination language was approved on first reading, by a vote of 4-1 with Cass Pook voting against.

Before wrapping up the public part of the meeting, the board also extended the timeline of the Activities Committee through the end of the school year, giving them more time figure out how to make student sports and activities more affordable.