Out of the budget for 2021-2022: Funding for Community Schools. The School Board reallocated the Community Schools reserve account to fund the Blatchley swimming pool next year. Blatchley will still see a “cut back” version of Community Schools, with buildings (mainly Blatchley) opened and closed by district staff. (KCAW file photo)

The Sitka School Board has passed a budget for schools next year, balanced by dipping deeper into savings than usual.

The decision to tap savings was recommended by Sitka’s interim superintendent last Wednesday (4-21-21), who also offered a stern warning that the same play wouldn’t be available in future years.

Note: The Sitka School Board will meet next at 6 P.M. Wednesday, May 5, to discuss the distribution of just over $800,000 in CARES Act relief next year. 

Passing the budget doesn’t sound all that thrilling to be honest, but it is the biggest responsibility of school board members, and consumes most of their time every spring.

This year, new members Andrew Hames and Blossom Teal-Olsen had the honors.

Hames — I move to approve the FY2022 budget in the amount of $22,306,185.

Teal-Olsen — Second.

The district is smaller than last year. The seven teachers who are retiring won’t be replaced, with the most noticeable reduction at Keet Gooshi Heen Elementary, which will have 2 fewer classrooms, and 40 fewer students.

The only financial maneuver in the final budget had already been agreed to in substance, if not formally voted on: Cashing out Community Schools. 

This is interim superintendent John Holst:

M01 “And we will be bringing you a motion to move the reserve account of Community Schools to the reserve account of the (Blatchley) pool, so we can operate the pool in the coming year,” Holst said. “And then we’re going to do a very cut back version of Community Schools for next year.”

Note: The “cut back version” of Community Schools will rely on district staff to open and monitor Blatchley during after-school and weekend activities in the building. Read more details here.

That particular cash swap doesn’t affect the bottom line of the district’s operating budget, since Community Schools was funded in previous years by the City of Sitka, and the money was not accounted for in district operations.

The student activities travel fund is another matter. That’s $132,000 that the administration had at first dropped from the budget, but then put back in.

Holst said that if the district didn’t support student travel, it would create a strain on Sitka’s business community.

“I didn’t feel comfortable cutting activities travel,” said Holst, “because all that would do would be to increase fundraising and the businesses in town would absorb a lot of that — not a good time to even be thinking about that.”

But keeping student travel in the budget — as well as meeting other operating expenses — means taking money out of reserves, and dropping below the $600,000 threshold the district maintains to cover payroll, in the event government revenues are delayed. Sitka’s reserves will dip to $270,000.

Holst said it could be worse. Much worse.

“We’re not the only district that’s spending their reserves,” Holst said. “Juneau is spending every penny of their reserves to balance their budget.”

Doing a little better than Juneau was probably the only positive in Sitka’s budget. Holst warned that if local enrollment continued to trend downward, toward around 1,000 students, the Sitka district would be facing a revenue shortfall of roughly $1 million per year for the next four years. He urged the board to prepare for that day now, and not to use the over $1 million it’s likely to receive in the third CARES Act relief bill to hire teachers that it won’t be able to afford in a couple of years.

But the alternative is grim: $1 million is roughly equivalent to 11 teachers, and balancing the budget with staff cuts that large would be seismic. “You can’t get there from here,” said Holst.

School board member Paul Rioux said that the state had not increased base student funding for schools since 2017, and that might help with Sitka’s prospective deficit. President Amy Morrison thought the board should take it one budget at a time.

“Because I can tell you that sitting here two or three years ago there was no way could have ever foreseen all of the different factors that go into our budget this year,” said Morrison. “It just seems that every year there’s a whole new set of unknowns before us. So while I do want to be fiscally responsible, I hesitate to put too much money aside in anticipation of what may or may not happen in a year or two.”

The Sitka School Board unanimously passed the $22 million budget for next year (Eric VanCise was absent and excused). It will go next to the Sitka Assembly for final approval.