Pacific High students presented survey data suggesting that 44-percent would drop out if the school were closed or relocated within another building. (KCAW file photo)

The Sitka School Board on Wednesday (4-4-18) held an additional public hearing on next year’s budget — and this time testimony focused on Pacific High School.

The district is counting on the city — and ultimately the public — to step up and support critical programs and staffing.

Downloadable audio.

No one on the school board or in the administration has proposed cutting Pacific High, which is the district’s alternative high school, but there has been some discussion of relocating the program to one of the district’s other buildings — and creating a so-called “school within a school.”

Pacific High junior Killian DeTemple told the board that absorbing the school into another building would be equivalent to closing it.

“I ask you to consider this: To assimilate Pacific High into a separate but-already-existing institution would be to irreversibly damage or even destroy the social, cultural, and spiritual dynamics which have been established and evolved over the course of its history. Aside from the funding Pacific High receives as an alternative institution, the losses it would suffer in terms of spirit and community would be much too high for me and a significant number of my peers — and force us to drop out entirely, move out of the community for alternative education options, or to pursue a GED.”

DeTemple had his facts right. According to district data supplied for a previous work session, Pacific High pencils out economically. It costs the district a little over $600,000 to operate, but generates at least $200,000 more than that in funding due to grants, the state foundation formula, and other revenue sources like the free and reduced lunch program. Much of this money would be jeopardized if the school’s enrollment dropped significantly.

Pacific High senior Madison Sprague offered data suggesting that over 40-percent of her fellow students would leave if the school were closed.

“We did a survey today. There were five options on the survey: To go to Sitka High, Mt. Edgecumbe, to be homeschooled, to drop out and get a GED, or to just drop out in general. And 44-percent said either drop out, or drop out and get a GED.”

Pacific High currently serves 29 students.

Just over half of the 20 individuals who spoke at the hearing were there to support Pacific High. Others testified in support of retaining teachers, the career and technical education program, and the Performing Arts Center.

High school music teacher Mike Kernin could barely contain his frustration that the Performing Arts Center — or PAC — was again up for a cut.

“Out of the 25 years I’ve worked in the district I’ve either been a political chip, whether it’s the Performing Arts Center or as a music teacher — 19 times. It’s frustrating. I have co-workers who won’t look at me because they think that if I’m for the Performing Arts Center, I’m against teachers. What are you going to do if you save a few bucks on the Performing Arts Center, and you tenure yet more teachers, and then have to tell them that they’re losing their jobs?”

In the board work session that followed, president Jenn McNichol asked her fellow members to give the administration “marching orders” for preparing a final draft of next year’s budget, and closing a spending gap of nearly $2 million. In all likelihood the budget will contain a request to the City of Sitka for an additional $500,000 to cover reductions in state funding resulting from increases in the assessed value of property in the city, to restore cuts from the last two years, to share expenses for the Performing Arts Center and Community Schools, and to retain two teachers in the elementary grades.

The City of Sitka, however, doesn’t have money to spare. But unlike the school district, it has the power to raise revenue. Board president Jenn McNichol said that it might be time for the citizens of Sitka to decide what kind of schools they want.

“Times have changed. That’s just the bottom line. I don’t think that there’s a lot of waste going on. The price of oil dropped several years ago and this is the ripple effect. That’s the most direct correlation that we can tie to all these problems.”

McNichol is a pediatrician, and she said school budget decisions could be “more difficult than medical triage,” because every program is important to a student or group of students and “every student is important.”

“To an individual student, Pacific High is everything to them,” McNichol said. “To another student, being able to perform in the auditorium is everything to them.”

The Sitka School Board will hold a final budget hearing and approve next year’s budget at 6 p.m. Tuesday, April 17, in the high school library.