From Left: School board members Eric Van Cise, Elias Erickson, Amy Morrison, and Paul Rioux met with the Sitka Assembly to discuss the city’s contribution to the school district for FY21. (KCAW/Rose)

The city is increasing its contribution to Sitka’s public schools this year. When the Sitka Assembly met with the school board Thursday, it approved a $7.6 million dollar contribution. That’s an increase of more than $333,293 from last year.

That figure includes half of what the city anticipates it will receive if federal funding from “Secure Rural Schools” program comes through this year. By the numbers, that’s an estimated $250,000 in federal dollars plus $80,000 from the city.

Sitka school board president Elias Erickson said the district couldn’t authorize expenditure until they know their total revenue. But he says they’re pleased with the assembly’s support.

“Having a starting point is extremely important. We get it, things change, and there’s a whole lot that we don’t know about too coming down the pipeline from the state,” He said. “Regardless, being able to count on 37 percent of what our revenues are going to be is very important, instead of having to be uncertain about what 100 percent of those revenues are going to be.”

This time last year, the city’s contribution to local schools was still up in the air, the district was looking at laying off numerous staff as a result of funding cuts at the state level, and school boosters were frustrated. After 120 community members showed up to a special assembly meeting in April, advocating for flat funding, the assembly finally approved a budget with no additional cuts by a single-vote margin.

But the tone is different this year. On Thursday, most assembly members agreed to fund public schools to the maximum allowed under the cap. That will bump up the city’s contribution by more than 4 percent.

Even so, Sitka Mayor Gary Paxton said the city is not flush with cash. It has aging infrastructure, and most of the city’s departments are getting 2 percent increases — not enough to address deferred maintenance.

“I’m just saying that, in the situation of our current budget, I think this is a sincere and general offer and reflects the support that all assembly members have for the school district,” he said. “We value what you do.”

There was some dissent. Assembly member Richard Wein said he’s concerned about committing firmly to the school district without knowing “where the city stands financially.” He also had reservations around the school district’s projected $645,000 deficit for the upcoming fiscal year.

“I agree with the number, but I don’t agree with the process. I don’t think this is good, as they say, business math,” he said. “I don’t think you would instruct the kids in school to spend the money before you had it.”

School board vice president Amy Morrison said the district, by law, was required to pass a balanced budget. That means they’ll be looking for where to cut to make that happen.

“So what that $645,000 is, that’s where we are right now, with everything as it is, we have to make cuts equal to $645,000,” she said.

Wein cast the lone vote against funding Sitka’s schools to the maximum allowed under the cap. It passed 6-1.

The assembly’s commitment to the district isn’t fully locked in until a second reading of its final budget, which should happen later this spring.

Superintendent Mary Wegner said she was thankful to the assembly, city staff, and the community for advocating for education funding. She said this was the first time since 2010 that the assembly had pledged to fund to the maximum allowed by the state. And she added that the assembly committing to a funding level this early is a huge relief to the district.

“There was a lot of uncertainty, a lot of trauma, a lot of stress [last year],” she said. “By the city saying up front, here’s a third of your budget, we can actually focus on teaching, on learning and on what we do for students and our families.”

Of course there’s still some uncertainty the district has to contend with at the state level.  And Wegner said, while the district will be looking to make cuts to make up the deficit, they likely won’t cut teaching positions, since student enrollment decreases have finally leveled off this year.