Wegner, upper right, presents the ’18 budget to assembly members Matt Hunter and Bob Potrzuski. District business manager Cassee Olin, upper left, looks on in a work session on Tuesday, January 11. (KCAW photo/Robert Woolsey)

It’s budget time in the Sitka School District, when the school board and administration begin to hammer out spending details for the school year beginning next fall.

KCAW’s Robert Woolsey reports on what could be some positive news for Sitka’s schools.

Downloadable audio.

Often it’s a pretty grim time, as the district contemplates a large and seemingly insurmountable deficit.

This year, though, not so much.

“Our new deficit after transfers is $95,926. Now that’s worth another yoohoo! (cheering) My first year as superintendent the budget deficit was $3.2 million. It’s wonderful to be able to say only $96,000.”

That’s superintendent Mary Wegner delivering the relatively bright budget news to the Sitka school board Tuesday night (1-10-17).

Wegner said the district has replaced its line-item budgeting strategy with a process that is more data-driven. Utility costs, for example, were analyzed over a ten-year period, as was student enrollment. The result is a more realistic picture of what the district will spend next year — or so Wegner hopes — instead of adjusting this year’s spending line-by-line.

Last June, Wegner said, thanks to a mild winter and other savings, the district had $1-million left over after school ended. Since the district’s savings account was already topped up, Wegner applied it elsewhere.

“So instead of giving it back to the state, we put it in some of our special accounts that often draw down money, such as Ventures, the pool, transportation, food service. Some of these other resources that we have as a district that are… what’s the correct term?… Enterprise Funds.”

That $1-million — or rather, about $850,000 of it that will go unspent this year — is a huge boon to the 2018 budget, and a major reason Wegner has been able to pare down the projected deficit to only $96,000.

But not all of next year’s budget news is worth cheering about. District enrollment continues to dip. There are about 1,275 students enrolled now; Wegner expects that to drop to 1,253 next year.

The decline in students will mean a decline in staff. The district will lose two teachers next year, and four paraprofessionals. Wegner said the staffing decreases will not affect pupil-teacher ratios in the elementary grades. Wegner has also factored in a decrease in the City of Sitka’s contribution of $240,000.

Despite the upbeat atmosphere of this first budget presentation, Wegner reminded the board that it was important to remind state legislators — who did not cut school funding last year — of the importance of schools.

“It’s a great opportunity to advocate, to tell our story about student successes, and why it matters that last year we were held harmless from the state. Why did that matter to us? What did that mean to our students everyday in the schools?”

The district budget goes next to teachers and staff in a presentation scheduled for 3:45 p.m. Friday January 30 at Keet Gooshi Heen elementary. The final budget must be delivered to the Sitka Assembly in April.

Here is the tentative schedule for district budget hearings this spring:

January 11, 2017 – 6 p.m. – Board/Assembly Work Session – DO Board Room

January 30, 2017 – 3:45 p.m. – Staff Budget Hearing – KGH MPR

January 31, 20176 p.m. – Superintendent Evaluation/Contract Special Meeting – DO Board Room

February 7, 20176 p.m. – School Board Meeting – SHS Library

February 9, 20177 p.m. – Community Budget Hearing – SHS Library

February 21, 2017 – 6:30 p.m. – Raven Radio Call In – 2 board members/Cassee/Mary

February 28, 20176 p.m. – School Board Budget Work Session – DO Board Room

March 2, 20176 p.m. – Board/Assembly work session – Place TBA

March 6 or 7, 2017 – 6 p.m. – School Board Meeting – ANB Hall

March 28, 20176 p.m. – School Board Budget Work Session – DO Board Room

April 18, 20176 p.m. – Final Budget Hearing/Budget Approval – DO Board Room