Failing to hire a Science or Music teacher at Blatchley Middle School could cause delays in opening later this month, according to principal Ben White. “Each teacher represents 100 students,” he said. “We would have to change every single teacher’s schedule in totality.” (Emily Kwong/KCAW photo)

The Sitka School Board Wednesday night (8-7-19) approved contracts for 18 non-tenured teachers — all of whom were pink-slipped last spring, pending the outcome of a financial tug-of-war between the legislature and the governor.

But with less than two weeks until the start of school, five new hires remain without contracts, and the legislature and the governor — meanwhile — have taken their dispute to court.

That leaves Sitka Schools scrambling to figure out how to open this month  with large gaps in the middle school schedule — and possibly much larger classes in the elementary grades.

Note: The Sitka School Board will meet in special session at 6 p.m. Tuesday, August 13, in the district office boardroom, to consider options for opening school with unfilled  teaching positions.

The first-half of August is about the worst time for a school district to find itself short of money, but that is what has happened in Sitka — and likely in almost every other school district in the state.

What’s at stake is a $30 million one-time appropriation (HB 287) by the legislature for all schools across the state for the coming school year — passed last year and signed by former Alaska Gov. Bill Walker before he left office.

Current Gov. Mike Dunleavy, however, believes that so-called “forward funding” is illegal. And he’s drawn his line in the sand between this $30 million appropriation and Alaska’s school children.

Gov. Dunleavy’s legislative history with education funding — as a former state senator, and former school superintendent — is well known, and the Sitka School District anticipated that there would be conflict over this money. But it also anticipated that there would be compromise, so the board last spring assumed that the legislature and governor would settle on half, and $15 million would be distributed across the state for schools this year.

That didn’t happen, and now the legislature and the governor have gone to court to decide the matter of forward funding, leaving schools in budget limbo. In Sitka, the local share of that $15 million is $151,000. That’s revenue the district was planning on, but just isn’t there anymore.

Sitka hasn’t filled five teaching positions for next year. District superintendent Mary Wegner wanted counsel from the board.

“But before I issue contracts to all of the five potential new hires,” Wegner said. “I just wanted to have the board have the conversation that this is the direction you would like me to go.”

That direction would be to not hire all five teachers — but which positions don’t you fill? Currently open are a Sixth grade Science teacher and a Music teacher in the middle school, a First grade and Kindergarten teacher at Baranof Elementary, and a Special Ed teacher.

For the sake of argument, let’s say the board chose not to hire a Science teacher at Blatchley.

“Right now, I don’t know if we’d open school on time if that happened,” said Blatchley principal Ben White. “We would have to change every single teacher’s schedule in totality.”

White told the board that scheduling classes at Blatchley was a shell game, with each teacher representing one-hundred shells. He said most middle school teachers doubled- or tripled-up classes. A Social Studies teacher also teaches Cooking; another Social Studies teacher also teaches two periods of P.E.; and a Math teacher also teaches Health. And Music is the single-largest class in the school.

Those complications forced the board to look at the elementary grades.

Elias Erickson — If we had to choose tonight not to rehire any of these positions…

McNichol — Refill…

Erickson — …refill these positions, First Grade would probably be the most likely candidate.

But not hiring a First grade teacher would only be the least of five evils. Baranof principal Jill Lecrone said that First-grade class size would go up, and that she would not redistribute first-graders into multi-age classes as has sometimes been done in the past, since none of her staff had the specialized training.

Although Erickson felt that First grade was the logical choice, it’s a decision he didn’t feel prepared to make without more information. Board member Eric VanCise was in the same camp: He wanted to see things settled at Blatchley, but it felt impulsive.

Said VanCise: “I wish there was a way tonight I could say ‘Ben, you’re good to go with those two positions. That way you can move forward and get your schedules and get stuff going.’ That’s if I could have my dream. And then circle back on things.”

Board member Amy Morrison said there were so many factors to consider that the decision at this stage was beyond the board’s expertise, and she asked if the administration could develop a more specific set of options. Board president Jennifer McNichol was willing to call a special meeting the following week for that purpose. She told faculty and administrators present that she appreciated their advocacy for students…

“But I think we want to have this be a considered decision,” McNichol said. “It’s feeling like more of an emotional decision right now.”

Other options for covering the deficit might include cutting secretarial staff or reducing janitorial services — and a very warm winter would help.  But none would take a very serious bite out of the deficit. The big money in the district is spent on teaching staff. “A two-day furlough,” said business manager Cassee Olin, “and your deficit goes away.”

That, or Gov. Dunleavy releases the school funding already appropriated in last year’s legislative session.