kgh sign feaThe Sitka School Board has balanced its budget and returned two teaching positions to the payroll, but the district’s finances are far from secure.

The board last Friday (4-22-16) approved a budget for next year just shy of $21-million, but cut into its reserves by half to make ends meet.

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The school board began the budget process this spring with a $1-million deficit, but about $2-million in the bank.

No worries, right?

The district is drawing down its savings by just over $1-million to balance the budget next year. Superintendent Mary Wegner says she’s not done losing sleep.

“Although we’re okay this year, we’re not okay next year. Especially since the state is not looking at revenues yet. We can hope that they will. But the state situation is unlikely to change and the city has its own challenges. And they may not be in a position to help us like they were able to last year.”

The City of Sitka topped up the board’s budget with a last-minute infusion of $1-million last year. The Citizen’s Task Force suggested rolling that amount back by $200,000 next year. The school board split the difference and is asking for a cutback from the city of only $100,000.

The board is banking on a $50 increase in per-student funding from the state, and some federal money called Secure Rural Schools.

The state funding — if it comes through — would be worth about $138,000, the federal, about $250,000.

If those funding sources don’t come through, the district will have to draw on its savings, which are now below $1-million. If reserves drop to $600,000 or so, the district could find itself in trouble with payroll if it were facing emergency expenses of any kind.

Wegner says the district is already running on a lean budget. Two potential cuts — the Performing Arts Center and Ventures — generated significant public opposition.

I think everyone understands that it’s just not an easy fix. Because it’s saved this year doesn’t mean that doesn’t mean that there’s not work to do. In the case of the Performing Arts Center, it’s reinvigorated FOPA — Friends of the Performing Arts — and having them partner with the district to help cover uncovered costs so it doesn’t come from our classrooms is very valuable. And that was a positive outcome. And with the Ventures, really having the parents understand that we can’t offer this service for free. We run at a loss every year. It should pay for itself, so why doesn’t it? And looking at making sure people understand that we’re doing the best we can but we have to work together to achieve our goals.”

The Performing Arts Center costs the district roughly $250,000 a year to operate. Ventures is smaller and highly variable, with expenses over receipts averaging from a few thousand dollars and up.
The board tried a more collaborative public process this year. One suggestion was to save money by having teachers develop curriculum to meet the new Alaska standards, rather than purchasing published materials. The savings could be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, but Wegner says it’s just not practical.

“When you’ve got teachers who have 30 minutes of prep time a day, and they’re trying to prep for multiple subjects, or multiple iterations of content like at the high school or middle school, or elementary teachers who have different content, they don’t have the time to go to square one. To start to develop a program that has rigor. That has consistency for students.”

Last year, at the same time the district asked for a $1-million supplement from the city, it cut three teaching positions — two from Blatchley and one from the High School. Wegner says the cuts harmed education, and left many students in open periods rather than elective classes. Next year’s budget restores two of those positions, one each at Blatchley and at the High School.

“We put students first,” Wegner says. “Staff second.”

The school district budget now goes to the Sitka Assembly for final approval.