The Sitka School District’s financial picture was brighter under the sunny skies of last spring. A larger-than-expected enrollment drop this fall will cost the district $100,000 in state funding — a deficit that the school board will address in January. (KCAW file photo)

After an unanticipated enrollment drop this school year, the Sitka School Board will be forced to make a significant budget adjustment in January.

District superintendent Mary Wegner told the school board at its regular December meeting (12-5-18), that the latest dip in enrollment coincided with the arrival of the Permanent Fund Dividend.

“We have seen an exodus since the PFD checks have come out,” Wegner said. “We are currently at 1204.5. It’s not uncommon to see that exodus and it usually balances out a little bit.”

1,204 students is 49 fewer than were in school in Sitka last April, and 38 fewer than the district’s projections.

The Sitka School District — like all schools in Alaska — bases its budget for the school year on the number of students it anticipates will be enrolled during a ten-day period in October. If a district’s actual census comes in higher than anticipated, the state contributes an additional amount of money.

If a district’s census is lower than estimated, it’s going to have a budget shortfall.
Superintendent Wegner outlined the scale of the problem.

The decreased enrollment from what was projected (38 students) equates to about $400,000. Now, we have two mitigating factors that will help with that: One of them is that students who qualify as intensive/special education services count as 13 students. They have extra needs — we have to hire extra staff to work with those students — but it does increase our revenues. And that brings it down to about $250,000 that we’re short. The other mitigating factor is that after our budget passed (in spring 2018) the state did a one-time fee based on our enrollment. We don’t know what that number is until the enrollment gets certified, which just happened. So we haven’t yet seen what amount that number will be. Then we have to take off the additional staff that we had to hire to support intensive students. So I would expect to see something of about a $100,000 deficit that we’ll have to present in a budget to fix this school year.

The “one-time fee” from the state Wegner refers to is a special $20-million appropriation passed by the legislature last March, to be divided among the state’s 53 school districts on a per-student basis.

The Sitka School Board is scheduled to address the current budget problem in January — at a time when it usually begins to look ahead to next year’s budget. In fact, advocacy groups were already bringing their concerns to the board at its December meeting.

This is Stephen Courtright, one of 46 members of a group called “Families for School Libraries,” who are pushing to restore the librarian position at Blatchley Middle School, which was cut last year.

“As a group we want to work with the school board, we don’t want to work in opposition. That doesn’t serve anybody. We just want to let you know that we exist, that we want to advocate with you guys, we want to advocate at the City & Borough meetings, we want to advocate at the legislative level, even.”

Group organizer Beth Short-Rhoads submitted a packet of about 50 letters written in support of restoring the Blatchley. She told the board that she had submitted the same material to Sitka Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins, whom she said had agreed to co-sponsor legislation increasing school funding next year.

The Sitka School District will be on Winter Break from Monday, December 24 to Thursday, January 10 — except for teachers, who will return on Monday, January 7, for three days of training and professional development.