The Sitka School District doesn’t know what its share will be of the $1.9 trillion “American Rescue Plan,” but it could be well over $1 million. The challenge: Spend the windfall wisely, and don’t create new programs or positions that may have to be cut when the pandemic is over. (KCAW image capture)

Thanks to the latest round of stimulus funding passed by congress and recently signed by the president, the Sitka School District should be in good financial shape next year. But the district administration is cautious about leaning too heavily on money that — once the pandemic crisis has passed — won’t be coming around anymore.

Update 4-5-21:

Since the broadcast of this story, the Sitka Assembly has agreed to contribute 100-percent of Secure Rural Schools funding to the Sitka School District, should SRS be reauthorized in Congress. Read the full story here.

One confusing aspect of reporting on the finances of the Sitka School District, and whether or not the Sitka Assembly funds schools to the state-allowed “cap,” is that the school board and the assembly view “non-instructional expenditures” differently. The school board believes that expenses like the Blatchley swimming pool, Community Schools, and the utility bill for the Performing Arts Center (which is paid by the city), fall outside the cap. The assembly, however, believes those non-instructional expenses should be included in the cap. Here’s a powerpoint slide from the school board’s budget hearing on March 25:

Why don’t the Sitka School District and the Sitka Assembly always see eye-to-eye on the so-called “school funding cap”? It’s because the school board only includes “Instructional Support” in the cap, while the assembly includes everything, including non-instructional support, in the cap. So, both entities are talking about $7.7 million in statutory school funding, but that funding is at the top of the school board’s column (on the left, above), while it’s the bottom-line (on the right, above) for the assembly.

During the hearing, interim superintendent John Holst attributed the district’s interpretation of the cap to then-city administrator Gary Paxton in the 1990s. However, in an email to KCAW on April 2, current Sitka municipal administrator John Leach argued that state law doesn’t distinguish between instructional and non-instructional expenses.

Original report:

The projected deficit for the Sitka School District is roughly $800,000 next year. That’s a pretty typical figure, as the district always starts its budget process in the red, as salaries and expenses are assumed to go up, and revenues — provided by the state and city governments — are assumed to remain about the same.

The big difference, however, is around $1 million in CARES Act money that the district is likely to see, as a result of the latest trillion-dollar stimulus package signed by President Biden on March 11.

The $1 million would cover the deficit and then some, but what then? That’s what Superintendent John Holst wanted to convey to the Sitka School Board at its most recent budget hearing on March 25.

“We can do all kinds of things,” Holst said. “We’re flush with money right now, but at some point when the money runs out, it is going to be super-painful. So be careful.”

Some of the possible uses for the stimulus funding would be funding a social worker at Pacific High, funding an elementary learning support coordinator, and running a summer school “intervention” to help bring students back up to speed.

With that in mind, the board tried it’s best to look at next year’s budget as if the stimulus money were not coming in: Seven veteran teachers are taking retirement or early retirement; the district is assuming enrollment will be down around fifty students over this year. So how do you plug the $800,000 hole?

The options are: Ask the city for more funding, dip into reserves, and cut at least two teaching positions. And… right, that $1 million in stimulus funding.

There was no desire at all to cut district staff any further. Board member Paul Rioux, however, favored asking the assembly to pick up a share. He felt a working partnership had been created over the last two years and — despite the temptations of CARES funding — everyone needed to remain invested in the long-term success of Sitka’s students.

“Sometimes it feels like Apollo 13 every week,” Rioux said. “We’re trying to figure out how to keep oxygen on with duct tape, and get around the next orbit, but having a plan that makes me feel comfortable about how students needs are going to be addressed moving into the future — I think that’s one of the main intents of the CARES money.”

Board member Andrew Hames agreed. Winning the maximum support of the assembly for schools was important, but it’s a mistake to dismiss the CARES funding. The first two relief packages passed in the previous administration were designed to equip schools to educate during a pandemic. This latest round is intended to make up for revenue shortfalls due to the recession, as schools return to in-person learning. Hames wanted to keep the CARES money in play during budgeting.

“With this shot coming in I think we should look at it — or I want to look at it — as what it’s intended for,” said Hames, “and that’s to bridge a gap.”

There was sentiment among the public for this, too. Teacher Susan Brant-Ferguson said the district would be limited in how much of the stimulus funding it could save. “We have the money for a rainy day,” she said. “Well, it’s pouring.”

Parent Beth Short-Rhoads agreed. 2020 had been hard on students; clawing back ground next year will be challenging, and the CARES money would help.

“Schools need as much money as they can get right now,” said Short-Rhoads. “Considering how state funding is going down, considering how teacher’s salaries haven’t kept up with the national standard. So I feel like rather than talking about taking a hit, we need to be really advocating for getting the full amount of funding that our schools need, because really that isn’t even enough.”

The city has offered to provide the district with about $7.5 million in funding for instruction next year, about $250,000 below the so-called “cap” allowed under state law. Board member Blossom Teal-Olsen concurred with the members of the public who spoke, and with  her fellow board members that the city should consider upping its stake. “We’re a vital part of the community, and we have a viable ask,” she said.

The next district budget hearing will be 6 p.m. April 14. The district’s budget will be finalized and approved by the board on April 21.