Students head home from Sitka’s Blatchley Middle School in 2014. Due to the “School Size Cost Factor” in the state’s funding formula, there would be no savings in closing Blatchley or any other building — in fact, it would increase the deficit, according to district business manager Cassee Olin. With no room to pursue large cuts to facilities, the governor’s proposed budget has backed Sitka’s School Board into a financial corner that may force 42 layoffs in the district.
At least one board member resented Gov. Dunleavy’s political gamesmanship with children’s lives. “I’m kinda giving him the middle finger if I could,” said board member Eric VanCise.

The Sitka School Board is unwilling to prepare a budget for next year that is 25-percent lower than this year — simply on the odds that Gov. Dunleavy will succeed in rolling back education funding. Neither is there consensus on the board to play it safe and draft a budget at half of that amount, or 12 percent, just in case of a political compromise.

Instead, the board is betting that Alaskans will reject the governor’s scheme and its “catastrophic” impact on schools, in favor of supporting the state’s children.

And at least one board member would like to send that message to Juneau with a visual aide.

Note: The Sitka School Board will hold its next budget worksession at 6 p.m. Monday, March 11, in the Sitka High School Library. They’ll be joined by Sitka Assembly members at 7.

Here’s how Sitka superintendent Mary Wegner described the potential loss of 25-percent of the district’s funding.

“41.5 positions being eliminated is significant. It is catastrophic,” she said.

And she wasn’t talking only about the impact on schools. She gave the size of the cut some context.

“We are the second-largest employer in Sitka. This will have a significant economic impact on the entire Sitka community.”

Wegner and district business manager Cassee Olin presented a worst-case scenario if the governor’s cuts were to somehow pass the legislature. The doomsday budget would eliminate 42 jobs from the district in all: 5 district-wide administrators and staff, 7 school-based administrators and staff, 22 non-tenured teachers, and 8 tenured teachers.

In addition, the district would have to shed the Performing Arts Center, and the Head Start program, many extracurricular activities, and possibly the Blatchley Pool.

And, due to arcane accounting procedures within the state school-funding program, known as the “School Size Cost Factor,” the district would save no money at all by closing one of its buildings.

So what to do? This was the dilemma before the board at its regular March meeting Wednesday night (3-6-19).

One idea, backed by member Elias Erickson, was to take the advice of Sitka Sen. Bert Stedman, and assume that through political compromise, the governor will only succeed in getting half of his 25-percent budget cut. That would mean drafting a budget with a 12-percent reduction — or around 20 jobs.

Tim Pike is former president of the Sitka Education Association, which represents Sitka’s teachers. He was reluctant to see the district lean toward so many layoffs.

“This is more of a gamble than ever,” Pike said. “Whichever way we go we’re probably not going to make it. We’re going to be wrong one way or the other. If we’re wrong in cutting more people than we need to, we’re going to lose a lot of quality people. When you build a budget that says we’re cutting 20 people, a) make sure they know, and b) do it as quickly as possible. But realize that if you’re wrong, you’ve still lost those people most likely.”

High school teacher Mike Vieira also testified, saying that giving the governor even half of his cut was playing into his game, and giving him the win.

Most of the teaching layoffs would likely be in the upper grades, but the elementary level would still see increases in class size — possibly up to 28. Fourth grade teacher Heather Lockwood said that came at a price.

“You add one more child and that is not a number in a room,” Lockwood said, her voice filling with emotion. “That is a human being. When you add those children, you remove the opportunity for us to really know them. And when we know them, we can teach them.”

The testimony of staff helped pull the board away from looking further into a compromise budget.

Board member Amy Morrison, especially.

“I feel like the majority of what I was hearing from teachers and staff was ‘We can’t afford to make these cuts. We can’t afford to have these large classroom sizes,’” she said. “And I really feel like compromising is saying we can.”

Member Elias Erikson, however, still urged caution — and a reality check about layoffs.

“I would maintain my initial position of a 12-and-a-half percent reduction,” he said. “And one thing I would want to know is a hard deadline when we would want to notify teachers by, and to come back to the table next time with a safe minimum number of teachers to notify that they’re going to be looking for another job.”

Erikson received partial support from Joe Pate, the student member of the board, who said that the stripped-down education the district could provide with 12-percent less funding would be nothing close to what he was privileged to receive over his years in Sitka’s schools, but nevertheless he was afraid of what the governor could do — presumably, veto any budget proposed by the legislature that restores full education funding.

If this was all shaking out to be a political game played by the governor and his allies, board member Eric VanCise wanted to call their bluff.

“If a bunch of people fold,” he said, “it’s like ‘Ah, I got ‘em!’ And excuse me if I need to be thrown out of the room, but I’m kinda giving him (Gov. Dunleavy) the middle finger if I could. And forgive me for saying that!”

Board member Dionne Brady fell into that camp — albeit less colorfully. She thought the governor’s budget plan would falter when Alaskans realized what was at stake.

“And so we’re looking at a governor that won largely on a platform of protecting a dividend check,” she said, “and I think a lot of people didn’t realize that the dividend check would come at the expense of all the things our state provides.”

Board president Jenn McNichol agreed that the governor’s plan was far out of line, and may never come to pass, but that didn’t mean that the district wasn’t facing problems. Even if education is fully funded next year, Sitka is looking at a budget $1,380,000 in the red.

“To be frank, though, we still haven’t had the discussion about how we’re going to address the $1.38 million of our initial preliminary budget,” said McNichol. “What we learned tonight: We’re not going to meet that by closing a school, we’re not going to meet that by finding additional efficiencies. We’re already talking about more than three staff members (to be cut) — that’s obvious.”

Before the board adjourned its three-hour 45 minute meeting, district business manager Cassee Olin reminded members that their task was more than settling on a number — whether 12-percent or 25 — to cut the budget, but rather to keep an eye on all the moving parts, and to think about education. She said “I can create 50 different budgets with 50 different numbers.”