The proposed Sitka School District reduction in force, by job classification. FTE stands for “full-time equivalent.” In some cases, two .5 FTE’s are held by the same individual. Although the impact is roughly 8-percent across all three job classifications, board members were conflicted about cutting the assistant principal position at Blatchley: While some were concerned that this would be a step backward for Sitka’s middle school, others felt that the district was perceived by the public to be top-heavy in administrators. (SSD image)

The Sitka School District will be down over eight full-time teaching positions next year, and another seven staff and administrators — and that’s the conservative outlook.

The district administration unveiled a budget plan last week (Friday 4-12-19) which assumes that when this year’s epic budget battle in the capital is over, education funding will emerge with some small victories.

Update April 19, 2019: The school board held a final budget hearing on Wednesday, April 17. Following public testimony, the board adopted a final budget for submission to the Sitka Assembly by May 1. See the full story here.

A packed library on a Friday night — this is the kind of public hearing that the Sitka School Board is more accustomed to, on a normal year when two or three positions or programs might be in jeopardy.

This year, just about everything’s on the table, as the Dunleavy administration has proposed a 25-percent cut to education statewide, and the scale of the potential impact on the Sitka District has been almost overwhelming to contemplate, much less testify about.

But that changed on Friday, when the district rolled out a plan that eliminates 15 full-time equivalent positions — half of them in the teaching force.

Superintendent Mary Wegner explained the rationale:

“I have worked with the principals and department directors to create this list that we’re looking at,” said Wegner. “And it’s based on everybody’s best guess at how we’ll have the minimum direct impact on classrooms. But I will say that every single one of these cuts will impact the classroom at some level. We’re just trying to minimize the direct impact to the classrooms.”

Three of the teaching positions to go were going to go even under the best of financial circumstances, due to lower enrollment in the elementary grades. But the other 5 positions involve eliminating or reassigning a reading interventionist, a technology teacher, a half-time Art teacher, a counselor, and a secondary learning support teacher.

Support staff positions to possibly be cut include one-and-a-half secretaries, an IT technician, a half-time Special Ed admin assistant, and three paraprofessionals.

And one full-time equivalent admin position would go — the Blatchley assistant principal.

School board members were initially most concerned about the Blatchley assistant principal position, and immediately began to look for alternatives.

Superintendent Wegner cut them off at the pass.

“What I would recommend is that we not try to figure this out here,” she said. “That’s my job. If the board sets a direction that you want to maintain that half-time position at Blatchley Middle School as assistant principal, then leave it to me to go figure out how to solve that issue. This isn’t something that we need to figure out here.”

Wegner’s advice was due to the complexity of the cuts, which are not necessarily apparent in the numbers. The counselor position, for example, would drop from Sitka High and move to Blatchley. A Technology teacher at the high school would also divide his time with the middle school. And so on: A spreading of teaching resources in a thinner layer over more students.

Sitka High principal Laura Rogers suggested that the changes would not be obvious to anyone but the students themselves.

“We already lost a classroom teacher last year, just one, due to decreased enrollment,” said Rogers. “And though our class sizes look manageable, what’s happened is the diversity of our offerings have narrowed. We lost Drama and Theater classes, AP language is no longer available at Sitka High School. For next year, in order to maximize student flexibility in getting into a narrowing pool of electives — because we will be sharing Mr. Bekeris (Technology) with Blatchley Middle School, we decided that we’re going to have to eliminate YA (Young Adult) Literature and Alaska Literature, and to move those kids into other things that may not have been their first choice.”

The teaching staffs at both Baranof Elementary (l.) and Keet Gooshi Heen elementary schools testified as a group about the importance of small classes. “As certified teachers we can manage a lot of kids,” said KGH teacher Jule Peterson, “but as far as managing to have success with each kiddo, that’s not going to happen.” (KCAW photo/Robert Woolsey)

Thirteen people testified before the board — all of them teachers or retired teachers. The faculties of Baranof Elementary and Keet Gooshi Heen stood behind representatives, who shared letters that all had signed.

The common theme was that increased class sizes in the elementary grades was harmful in subtle ways.

Speaking before her assembled colleagues, Keet Gooshi Heen teacher Jule Peterson said large class sizes were not impossible, but came with a price.

“I did have a question from an outside community member today asking if I could manage 30 kids in a classroom,” Peterson said. “My answer was, ‘Yeah, as certified teachers I think we can manage a lot of kids, but as far as managing to have success with each kiddo, that’s not going to happen at that size.’ So that’s why we’re really fighting for and advocating for small class sizes.”

Board members made it clear that they are pro-teacher, but the funding problem this year is unique. As member Elias Erickson put it, the “elephant in the room” is the assumption of flat funding, both from the city and the state, neither of which is especially likely. Superintendent Wegner said she’ll likely be forced to withhold the contracts of some untenured teachers until the funding picture for next year is settled — and hope that there are teachers still in Sitka to rehire.

Board member Dionne Brady-Howard — a teacher herself, at Mt. Edgecumbe High School — as always pushed for advocacy. “This has the appearance of people saving their jobs,” she said, “but it’s so much more than that. It’s saving the quality of our education.”