Although it wasn’t an increase to the BSA (base student allocation), the deal struck by Alaska lawmakers late Saturday night boosts school funding statewide by $20 million and $30 million in each of the next two years. (KTOO photo)

Last-minute deal-making by the legislature is sending more funding to the Sitka School District over the next two years, but it won’t be enough to restore two laid-off teaching positions, or the Blatchley librarian. However, the Blatchley Art teacher and 21 other non-tenured teachers have all received contracts.

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School districts across Alaska will be getting a $20 million boost next year, and $30 million the year after that.

Lawmakers in Juneau cut the deal for $20 million in the wee hours late Saturday night, just before adjourning at 1:30 a.m. Sunday morning (5-13-18).

The $30-million deal (HB 287) was made earlier in the session during negotiations over the first-ever use of Permanent Fund earnings to help close the state’s budget deficit.

The two, one-time grants will be welcome in school districts across the state, but they’re not the $100 increase to the base student allocation — or BSA — that education advocates had sought.

Increasing per-student funding for education has become an unpopular idea in Alaska’s Republican-controlled senate.

Sitka Representative Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins — a Democrat, and a member of the bipartisan majority that controls the House — skirts the idea that everyone’s just agreed to raising the base student allocation, without calling it that.

“Without getting too technical, effectively yes, although technically no. It’s going to be money that — if it comes through — would be dispersed to school districts through the base student allocation formula, but it wouldn’t be technically a change to the BSA. I know that sounds oxymoronic.”

Kreiss-Tomkins made these remarks last week, just prior to the marathon conclusion to the legislative session. The money did come through in a capital budget amendment, and is the equivalent of an increase in the BSA of almost $80 per student next year. In 2020, it’s the equivalent of a $117 increase.

Whatever you call it, the funding totals over $200,000 for the Sitka School District next year.

Sitka superintendent Mary Wegner is clearly relieved to have this aspect of the district’s finances settled through 2020.

“We still have our work cut out for us, but it is a huge relief to think that we could actually focus on education for a whole year!”

So why won’t $212,317 from the legislature restore two teaching positions in Sitka?
1. The district’s budget already assumed a $30 increase in the BSA (base student allocation from the state), or $81,515. Subtracting that from $212,317 leaves $130,802.
2. The district assumed that the City of Sitka would contribute $79,492 more than it actually did. Subtracting that from $130,802 leaves $51,310 — about half the cost of a teaching position — which the school board will likely move to district reserves.

The rough numbers rolled in from the Department of Education on Monday evening (5-14-18), just a few hours before the deadline for the Sitka School District to deliver contracts to its 22 remaining non-tenured teachers on Tuesday.

The district was forced to lay off two teachers next year due to reduced enrollment — the first time the district has ever done so — but that was going to happen regardless of any last-minute deal-making in the legislature. The English/Drama position at the high school is gone; so is a second-grade position at Keet Gooshi Heen.

The next two positions on the chopping block were at Blatchley Middle School: The librarian and Art teacher. The surprise boost in state funding was not enough to save both. The Art teacher — who is untenured — received a contract. However, Blatchley staff are going to have to figure out another way for students to check out and check in books.

“And that teacher position is a tenured teacher, so the librarian will have a job elsewhere in the district. But the position is currently stated to be eliminated.”

Wegner says that the Blatchley librarian is certified to teach Science, and may move into that classroom, after the current middle school Science teacher moves up to the high school to take a position being vacated by a retirement.

The unexpected increase in state funding leaves the district with about $50,000 in unbudgeted cash next year — not enough to restore the library job, unless the school board met in special this session and adjusted the budget. Wegner says that the board is more likely to deposit the money in district’s reserve account — which currently has nothing in it above the state-required minimum.

Restoration might be possible (according to SEA president Tim Pike) for the Keet Gooshi Heen position, if a tenured teacher moves into a grant-funded job.

That leaves the absence of a drama teacher at Sitka High as the only foregone conclusion next year.

“We’re hoping one of the other teachers can pick it up, or we’ll have to have a coach from outside the teaching pool,” says Wegner. Historically, the drama class has fed the high school’s award winning Drama, Debate, and Forensics team, which is run by coaches from the community, as are many other sports and activities in the district.