School board budget hearings have been lightly attended this year, as parents and teachers are unsure what positions or programs might be at risk in next year’s budget. “People don’t know specifically what we’re looking at,” mused board member Dionne Brady-Howard. “We don’t know what we’re looking at.” Consequently, the board asked the district administration to propose a list — without naming names — of potential staff cuts to consider at a work session and budget hearing scheduled for 6 p.m. Friday, April 12, in the Sitka High Library. (KCAW photo/Robert Woolsey)

Regardless of what happens in the legislature — or at the assembly table — the Sitka School District will look different next year.

Sitka School Board members on Monday night (4-1-19) heard an updated budget presentation that — under the best possible circumstances — could force them to cut up to nine positions next year.

The next task is to narrow down what jobs or programs could be at stake.

The School Board is keeping the REACH Homeschool program, which serves 21 students, but it’s asked the administration to find a contractor willing to take on the entire expense of running Community Schools — except for the cost of utilities and insurance to keep the building open.

It doesn’t look like there are any savings to be had closing Pacific High, so that likely will remain.

The prospect of closing Sitka’s alternative high school was a huge concern to a former student who testified that the program was “a second chance for me; it was hope for me,” and wanted the school to be there for future students who will struggle through their own crises.

Baranof Elementary teacher Joe Montagna recognized the speaker as one of his former students, and admired his courage in stepping forward. Montagna took the idea of hope a step further.

“I think we all take credit for that, “said Montagna, referring to the former speaker. “We all had a piece of that — from Baranof all the way up to Pacific High School. And we just don’t want our teachers to lose hope.”

But holding on to hope will be difficult for some, as the numbers are beginning to point toward another “workforce reduction,” which is admin-speak for having to lay  off people.

The district has already planned on cutting three elementary school positions due to lower enrollment. At this work session the administration proposed eliminating a special ed teacher, at a savings of $100,000 in salary and benefits.

See the full April 1 budget presentation.

That cut, plus draining its available reserves, plus lower-than-expected insurance costs — and the hope for a warm winter — leaves the district with $850,000 left to cut.

After strong pushback from last year’s decision to cut the Blatchley Middle School librarian, board member Dionne Brady-Howard said that she didn’t want to be blindsided again. “People don’t quite know specifically what we’re looking at,” she said. “We don’t know what we’re looking at.”

Board member Amy Morrison agreed, and suggested holding another public hearing to brainstorm.

“I don’t want eight or nine teachers to be the answer to this,” Morrison said. “I want to have another hearing just for ideas.”

District superintendent Mary Wegner said that it was the responsibility of the administration and the building principals to find ways to reduce staffing “with the least impact on students.”

A preliminary meeting on the subject was cut short last week (Friday 3-29-19) when administrators received word that a vehicle had collided with a school bus, injuring a half-dozen students.

School board members agreed to hold an extra budget work session and public hearing at 6 p.m. on the evening of Friday, April 12, in the Sitka High School Library.

And in a reversal of the usual pattern, the work session will precede the public hearing, so that people in the audience can respond to the board’s ideas for possible staff- or program cuts.

Upcoming School Board Budget Hearings

There are a couple of opportunities for the public to testify about school funding prior to the hearing on Friday, April 12.

This Wednesday evening, April 3, the Sitka School Board will hold a regular monthly meeting beginning at 6:30 in the ANB Founders Hall. The public is welcome to speak under “persons to be heard.”

This Thursday evening, April 4, the Sitka Assembly will hold a special meeting with the Sitka School Board to discuss school funding, 6 p.m. in Harrigan Centennial Hall.

School Funding Issues in the Legislature

There are several issues before the Alaska Legislature that have major ramifications for school funding. The two discussed most often by the Sitka School Board involve House Bill 287.

This 2018 legislation provided $20 million dollars in supplemental school funding statewide for the current school year. It’s worth $187,000 to the Sitka School District. Since the money was appropriated by a previous legislature and signed by the previous governor, current Gov. Mike Dunleavy was unable to withdraw it without the support of the legislature — many of whom felt that it would be impractical to withdraw appropriated money in mid-year.

Nevertheless, the Department of Education has not sent checks to school districts yet, creating some anxiety among school boards. In Sitka, the board would have to spend down the lion’s share of its reserves to cover the expenses it was planning to pay using the supplemental grant, if the money somehow doesn’t come through.

The very same bill, HB 287, also appropriated $30 million in supplemental funding to schools statewide for the 2019-20 school year. It would contribute an additional $309,000 to the Sitka School District. This funding is a larger question mark, since there are some in the legislature who would like to amend the amount — possibly down to $20 million dollars — which would then make the entire amount subject to a veto by the governor.

And finally, there was a third, less-controversial bill in 2018 that passed the legislature: Senate Bill 104, which appropriated $19 million dollars to support school districts involved in piloting new math and science curricula. Superintendent Wegner says this was a great idea but “six years too late.” The Sitka district — and many other districts around the state — have already bought and tested new curriculum materials.

Wegner would be happy to forego this funding, in the hope of keeping both supplemental grants of $20 million and $30 million intact.