District technology director Ian Crane told the board that his technician spent most of his time imaging computers — or cloning machines to make sure that every laptop and pc operated with similar software — but that some of that chore could now be automated. Nevertheless, there were concerns that response time to technology problems would be slower across the district, with only one staff member in the IT Department. (KCAW photo)

Sitka Schools superintendent Mary Wegner notified five new teachers on Wednesday (8-14-19) that they’ll be receiving contracts, and can start work with the rest of the staff on Thursday.

But she’ll also be giving the district’s IT technician his layoff notice, effective at the end of the month.

That’s the tradeoff the Sitka School Board made this week (at a special meeting on August 13), as it worked to close up the last $150,000-gap in its budget.

The IT tech will be first in line to get his job back, if the courts allow $30 million allocated by the legislature last year to be disbursed to schools. Gov. Dunleavy, however, is challenging the legality of so-called “forward funding,” leaving many districts — and not just Sitka’s — in a financial quandary.

Although the three members of the Sitka School Board present voted in favor of the administration’s strategy, there wasn’t true consensus. Board member Amy Morrison thought that dismissing the district’s information technology technician was going to harm all 1,500 technology users in the district, for the sake of making scheduling easier at the middle school.

“Obviously we need a sixth-grade Science teacher, and from what I understand there are so many qualified Science teachers within the district,” said Morrison. “I have a hard time thinking that the position can’t be filled in some way with the existing staff we have, and I would have liked to have seen an option for that. And I’m disappointed that we don’t have an option for that. Because it’s really hard to weigh what that would look like against the elimination of this IT tech.”

In addition to dismissing the IT tech — a savings of $70,000 — the administration proposed trimming some other non-teaching positions, and cutting other costs, to arrive at a combined savings of over $150,000, giving the district the buffer it needed to bring the sixth-grade Science teacher on board, along with a Music teacher, two elementary teachers, and a Special Ed teacher.

But board president Jennifer McNichol thought that Morrison was reaching too far into the weeds by raising a staffing question, when the broader issue board was budgetary.

“I don’t think it’s my job to shuffle teachers” said McNichol. “I think it’s reasonable to have conversations about all the different options, and weighing the resources of the district and how they’re distributed. But I guess I’m not really supporting the minutiae. There are some governing entities that set up hiring committees — I don’t think that’s our role. I think that’s micromanagement.”

That last remark of McNichol’s was a shot across the bow of the Sitka Assembly, which froze city hiring in April, created a hiring committee in May, and then fired administrator Keith Brady in June.

Morrison, however, countered that it wasn’t control over hiring that she wanted — only a more utilitarian option to close the budget.

“I think what I’m trying to get at is that it’s our responsibility to find as little impact to our kids as possible,” Morrison said. “We weren’t presented with another option of eliminating a teacher, and what impact that would have on our students. That’s what I want to see: I want to see if we eliminated one of these (five new teaching hires) what would it be, and what would the impact be on our kids? I’m incredibly concerned that the elimination of this IT tech position — indirectly — will have an impact on every single student and teacher in our district.”

Superintendent Mary Wegner defended her decision to preserve the five teaching jobs, since the board approved the positions in its final budget in April.

“My premise was to keep the five teaching positions that the board had voted on previously,” said Wegner.

But with only two days until teachers reported for duty, Wegner argued that there wasn’t time to come up with contingencies. Since a “no” vote by any one of the three board members present would kill the plan, and create uncertainty for students, parents, and administrators in two of the district’s schools, Morrison relented, and the amended budget plan passed 3-0.