American Government students pack the school board’s work session on district funding. With $1 million in legislative funding in the balance, board members urged students to become involved in education advocacy. (KCAW photo/Robert Woolsey)

The Sitka School Board is struggling to come up with a final budget for next year, with two major bills affecting education funding still in play in the legislature.

Superintendent Mary Wegner and the board met in a work session Tuesday night (3-28-17), but instead of fine-tuning a nearly-balanced 2018 budget, they opened a conversation about expanding class sizes in the elementary grades, and possibly laying off 5 untenured teachers.

Downloadable audio.

Much of the district administration’s attention right now is focused on the prospects of two bills in Alaska’s Republican-controlled Senate. Senate Bill 96, among other things, would require districts “to operate schools at full capacity,” or in other words, maximize the number of students per square foot in a school building.

In Sitka, this would mean moving 2nd grade back into the Baranof Elementary building, raising class sizes to 18-22 students, and laying off three elementary teachers.

Senate Bill 22 is the state operating budget. Senators are proposing two measures that would affect school funding. The first would reduce the base student allocation — or BSA — anywhere from 1 to 5 percent. At most, a 5-percent reduction would mean a loss of $805,000 to Sitka’s schools. The second measure would shift a share of the cost of funding employee retirements from the state to local school districts, again anywhere from 1 to 5 percent. At 5 percent, the effect on Sitka’s schools would be $558,000.

The combined impact could be well over $1 million for the Sitka district, and translate into the layoff of at least 2 teachers at the secondary level, other strategic cuts to items like school supplies, and requiring programs like Ventures and the swimming pool to be totally self-supporting.

The state House of Representatives is controlled by a bipartisan coalition led by Democrats, who are less likely to support cuts to education. It may take the legislature until June to reach an agreement.

With so much at stake, and so much uncertainty, Sitka school board president Cass Pook instructed superintendent Mary Wegner to let city hall know “That we’re adding back in the $239,000 into the budget; we’re not taking it out. And Mary (Wegner) will inform the city. She’ll have a conversation with them. And then if they want to have another work session to talk about it, we’ll talk about it.”

The school board had previously accepted a $239,000 reduction in the local contribution to schools in order to help the city close its budget gap. Although there was no vote, the five board member agreed with Pook to withdraw the offer.

The district currently employs 28 teachers who lack tenure, and who could be subject to layoff if the senate’s cuts come to fruition. The district offers contracts for the following school year 14 days before the last day of school in the current school year.

Sitka Education Association representative Tim Pike asked Wegner what information he should be passing on to the non-tenured members of the union.

Pike – Should non-tenured teachers be dusting off their resumes? How should we help these people understand what’s going on with this process, so that they know what they’re looking at? Because if they get this, they’re going to think that they might be on the chopping block.
Wegner – I would say that at every opportunity we are going to try to preserve all of our non-tenured teachers who want to stay here. That is our goal, however we are being faced with some inconceivable attacks against us from the state, and we have to present a balanced budget.

Teachers earn tenure in Sitka after three years — technically, on the first day teaching their fourth year. In academic professions, earning tenure means holding a permanent position.

The school board is scheduled to hold a final budget hearing at 6 p.m. on April 18th in the district board room. This most recent meeting was standing room only, with most of the audience comprised of high school American Government students. The board urged students to try their hand at legislative advocacy in support of schools.