Sitka Community Schools has scaled back during the pandemic, but it previously has had a large menu of activities — not just for kids. “Is it community, or is it schools?” interim superintendent John Holst asked the school board.

The budget for the Community Schools program in Sitka will likely be zeroed out next year, while the school district and city decide who’s financially responsible for the afterschool activities program.

The Sitka School Board on Wednesday night (4-14-21)  heard a presentation from the administration that recommended reallocating the Community Schools budget to the swimming pool.

Note: The Sitka School Board’s final budget hearing and budget approval will take place at 6 p.m. Wednesday, April 21, in Harrigan Centennial Hall and on Zoom.

The problem this year is that any money spent on Community Schools, would be money that would be “taken out of the classroom,” as it’s usually phrased.

“I can’t in good conscience recommend that we move forward as we have,” said interim superintendent John Holst. “It’s really hard to justify taking money out of the operating budget, and put it into functions that are as much community as they are school — in some cases even more. The pool is a community function, so is Community Schools. Now, there are kids involved in those too, but those are functions that I think you need to be saying to the assembly, ‘Next year, we need to have those things paid for, so they don’t come out of the budget.’ It’s one of the reasons that the deficit’s so big here.”

The school board and the assembly have been batting around three funding items throughout the budget process this year. Community Schools, the Blatchley Pool, and the Student Activities Travel fund. In the past, the assembly has paid for these on top of the millions of dollars ($7.5 million in 2021-22) it contributes to the operating budget for instructional expenses. This year, however, the assembly is not paying extra, and is asking the school district to absorb the costs into their operating budget.

But Holst had an alternative proposal: He suggested zeroing out the balance for Community Schools ($124,000), and reallocating it to the Blatchley Pool fund (which is down to $24,000). The money wouldn’t come out of the district’s operating budget, and it would buy some time.

“We’re going to leave that phrase there, ‘Community Schools,’” said Holst, “and we’re going to muddle along without putting any money into it this year. And just get through this next year, with the idea that the following year there needs to be a plan put together that makes some sense to everyone, to the assembly and to the district.”

Holst suggested forming a task force comprised of people who have successfully worked with Community Schools in the past, such as Barb Morse and Woody Widmark.

The Student Activities Travel fund would remain intact next year, at just over $132,000. While that’s a substantial amount of money, it is a fraction of what it costs to pay for student travel in a non-pandemic year — the bulk of which has to be fundraised by individual teams. Sitka Education Association president Mike Vieira — who had previously served six years as activities director at Sitka High — supported the district’s plan to preserve the travel budget, and he volunteered to serve on the Community Schools task force if it is formed.

The school board itself did not dwell too much on the possibility of closing Community Schools for a year. There is likely over $1 million in CARES Act relief coming to the district that could play a role in any final decision, and many afterschool activities happen in the district — especially at Blatchley — regardless of whether or not Community Schools officially exists.

Holst said activities like youth basketball would not be going away under any circumstances. “We just have to try to figure out how we can meet as many of those functions as we possibly can without putting any money into it,” he said, “and that it be done by the staff and buildings.”