Enrollment in the Sitka School District has hit 1,200 and is projected to go lower next year.
During the very first walk-through of the 2020 numbers on Wednesday (1-9-19), district officials projected a budget next year based on 1,187 students.
This is a drop of 89 students in three years.
The sharp decline in enrollment has taken the district by surprise. When the official enrollment count was taken last October, Sitka was 43 students below budget projections for the current year — creating an operating deficit of $138,000.
The Sitka School Board on Wednesday closed that gap by drawing money from reserves, leaving about $205,000 in the bank for other emergencies.
School board member Eric Van Cise asked if that money was available for spending this year. Business manager Cassee Olin replied “yes” — but there’s a catch:
“It can be used for whatever the board deems necessary,” said Olin. “But normally, whenever we have that money in there it’s used to balance the next year’s deficit. That’s what we’ve been doing.”
And if the preliminary numbers are any indication, there is likely to be a substantial deficit to cover. In what she called “An Introduction to the 2020 Budget,” Olin projected a shortfall of $1.3 million.
Some of the assumptions included in that figure are: Flat funding from both the state and the city for education, the steep decline in enrollment, a decrease of three teachers, and an increase in health insurance costs of 12-percent.
Additionally, the teachers’ union — known as the Sitka Education Association — will be negotiating a new three-year contract this year.
Superintendent Mary Wegner assured the board that it was very early in the process, and that the district will work through its financial problems. She also reminded them that things have been worse: Last year at this time the district was showing a preliminary deficit of $2.3-million which was eventually closed.
Sitka School Board counts on stable city funding
The Sitka School District is making one major assumption as it gets started on next year’s budget: That the city will put up the same amount of money for education next year as it did this year.
City funding for schools this year amounted to over $6.6 million for education, and to over $434,000 for non-instructional purposes, like the Blatchley pool and travel for activities. All told, it’s about $7.1 million from local taxpayers for Sitka’s schools.
But there’s no guarantee that Sitka will put up the same amount of money for schools in 2020. The Sitka Assembly met for a budget work session Thursday night (1-10-19) with a spreadsheet full of estimates and a list of “unknowns” for next year.
Perhaps the biggest unknown is how much will the city will give the schools in the coming year?
Deputy Mayor Steven Eisenbeisz said until they sat down with the school district to determine their needs, he didn’t want to commit to a number.
“The big one on this page for me is school funding,” said Eisenbeisz. “What is that number going to be? The other options on the bottom, I think that’s kind of a dance around what number we want to give the schools. If we decide to give them ten million dollars, we can dance around and figure out a way to call it whatever we wanna call it in order to give it to the schools. What is that number going to be? I don’t know at this point.
Under state law, the maximum that the city can give the schools — the so-called “cap” — is $7.1 million. That’s just for education, however. Recently, the city has been funding schools at 92-percent of the cap, and then contributing non-instructional money on top of that. The question both the assembly and the school board will reckon with is whether or not to push the 92-percent higher, while still paying for non-instructional needs.
The Sitka Assembly and the Sitka School Board will meet for a special budget work session next Thursday, January 17 at 6 p.m. in the Sitka High School Library. The meeting is open to the public.