Rep. Paul Seaton, R-Homer, co-chairman of the House Finance Committee, proposed a $48.7 million cut to school construction debt reimbursements. This is one of several factors that could dramatically increase Sitka’s modest school deficit projected for next year. (Photo by Skip Gray/360 North)

The budget picture for Sitka’s schools next year has turned a slightly deeper shade of red, after some additional numbers have come in.

The district opened its annual budget-building cycle this January with a projected deficit of $95,000. That number has now drifted above $168,000 — with the possibility of an even deeper deficit, should the state senate succeed in cutting the education budget this spring.

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The Sitka Assembly will hold a special meeting 6 p.m. Thursday, March 2, in Harrigan Centennial Hall, to discuss next year’s local contribution to schools.

Building the Sitka school district budget is always a roller coaster. Typically it’s a long, slow climb to a balanced budget. This year, however, the district started close to the top, thanks to data-driven analysis that gave the administration a more precise estimate for some big-ticket expenses, like heating fuel.

But in just seven days, the district’s $95,000 projected deficit has ballooned to $168,000. And education funding is now in play in the legislature.

Superintendent Mary Wegner says it’s still early. But she wouldn’t mind some good news.

“I can be in a meeting and I come out and I hear something’s happened in Juneau that is an $800,000 difference to our budget.”

Wegner’s referring to a proposal in the Alaska Senate to cut the base student allocation — or BSA — by 5-percent. The BSA is the most critical part of the funding formula used by the state to pay for schools. Right now, it’s $5,930 per student.

The Alaska House of Representatives — which is controlled by a coalition of both parties — wants to keep the BSA where it is. The house and senate will ultimately have to reach a compromise.

Although a reduction of $800,000 in state funding is a worst-case scenario, the current best-case scenario still has the district in the red by $168,000, due mainly to projected increases in health insurance costs. Staff who are retiring next year submitted their notices on February 15; Wegner now has to budget insurance costs for their replacements. She aims high, assuming that new teachers could be married with families.

To balance the budget against these higher projected insurance costs, Wegner wants to make the Ventures after-school program, the Blatchley swimming pool, and school buses — all self-supporting.

She says all three are almost there already.

“They should be self-supporting. However, they haven’t been in recent years. They have gone into the negative which has caused a drain on our operating budget. So what we’re saying is, for sure pool and pupil transportation are solidly on track to be self-supporting. Ventures is making really good progress. They’re very, very close this year. So as they continue to change we feel it’s fair to say that next year it could be self supporting.”

The combined savings would equal the $168,000 the district now needs to balance the budget.

This is manageable — it’s still pretty close to the top of the roller coaster — but there are other variables that hurt the district: Federal Secure Rural Schools funding — always a question mark — could disappear; the city could reduce its local contribution to schools; and the legislature could simply make a cut to education out of the state operating budget, or — as was recently proposed by Rep. Paul Seaton — renege on its promise to reimburse cities for major school projects.

The state is paying down most of bonds to build the Performing Arts Center and replace school roofs in Sitka. No one has any idea what the statewide impact would be of shifting that debt obligation to cities.

But the Sitka district is not out of options. Board members at their work session Tuesday discussed cutting the budget for supplies, reducing the district’s internet bandwidth, eliminating another teaching position, and finding a way for the Performing Arts Center to generate $50,000 in revenue.

Wegner wouldn’t specify the mechanism for generating money at the PAC. School concerts have traditionally been free. All she’d offer was that “We’re making good progress,” and…

“Change doesn’t happen overnight.”