Last spring, riding windfall oil prices following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Alaska Legislature passed a budget built around the idea of price benchmarks, to make sure nothing’s spent unless the revenue is there. For example: $85 oil is the basic budget; $87 oil starts forward funding of the state’s public schools, or paying for schools two years at a time, rather than one; $101 oil begins to refill the nearly-empty Constitutional Budget Reserve; $111 oil and above is deposited into the Permanent Fund. Last week, however, oil fell to $74, which could jeopardize the expectations for improved funding for schools.  (Flickr photo, Jason Ryman)

The changing economy – and the changing finances of the state – will produce some hard conversations at the Sitka School Board in the coming months, and board members want more time to discuss the challenges, including the continuing decline in students.

KCAW’s Robert Woolsey reports on the board’s December meeting.

Although it doesn’t feel like it in Sitka, gas prices are coming down across the nation, along with the price of crude oil. While this is good for drivers, it’s bad for everything else that depends on state funding, especially education. Last spring, when oil prices were soaring, Alaska’s legislature created a budget balanced at $85 for oil – which actually felt cautious at the time. But just last week, the price of crude dipped to $74.

The new financial reality is going to dash some hopes that Alaska’s schools will finally see a boost in state funding, along with stable funding for more than one year.

Sitka School Board member Tristan Guevin didn’t attribute his mood directly to oil, but he was deeply concerned about the future as he delivered his report to the board at its December 7 meeting.

 “I struggled to put words to paper for this board Report, and only recently realized why,” Guevin told the board. “I realized recently that I feel something of a sense of hopelessness for where we are and where we have to go as a board, district, community, and state to ensure that every student in SSD receives a well-rounded and high quality education. More than anything else, school districts across our state are underfunded and under-resourced, and there doesn’t seem to be the political will to change things at the state or local levels.”

The state is by far the largest funder of Alaska’s schools, through a formula called the BSA, or Base Student Allocation, which provides $5,960 per student to local school districts. Guevin said that it had gone up only $30 in the last eight years. Just accounting for inflation, he said, it should have gone up by more than $1,300 over the same time period. 

The shortfall, he argued, contributed to the first impasse in negotiations with the teachers’ union in Sitka in over 25 years.

“Without a significant change in the BSA in the coming years, I’m not sure how we move forward as a district,” Guevin said. “Our teachers need and deserve better pay and benefits. But as a school board and as a district, we have no way to raise revenues, so are largely at the mercy of the state and local government, and by extension, Alaska and Sitka residents, and what they’re willing to provide.”

Guevin said that Alaska’s Open Meeting law limited the ability of board members to get together to discuss the issues outside the board’s monthly meetings. He wondered if the board should schedule more work sessions to brainstorm ideas, strategy, and potential partnerships to improve funding for Sitka’s schools.

Board president Blossom Teal-Olsen, and members Melonie Boord and Todd Gebler agreed.

“We do need to have more work sessions, just to go over things that you said,” Gebler said. “I feel that would be a great place to start.”

Although more discussion could help, so would more students. While the pace of Sitka’s enrollment decline has slowed, it hasn’t stopped. Superintendent Frank Hauser told the board that enrollment numbers during the critical October count period were below projections.

“We currently have 1,122 students in attendance in the Sitka School District,” said Hauser. “Some of those students are part-time correspondence students and only count as .9. In the final number that we submitted to the state as our Average Daily Membership was 1,112.1 students. That was 12.9 students less than what we projected.”

The financial news is not all bleak. In October, Sitka voters adopted a special tax on cannabis that could supplement the school activities budget by $300,000. A couple of listening sessions were held to gather input on how to use the money, and the district sent out a survey. One of the questions was open-ended. Hauser shared some of the results.

“This is just a sample of the 38 pieces of feedback we received,” said Hauser: “ ‘Targeted towards lower income students who otherwise cannot participate,’ ‘especially travel costs,’ ‘equally supporting travel for academic activities as well as athletic activities, If possible.’ ‘I would prefer that all students get a share of these funds to subsidize their participation activity of their choice.’ ‘Support field trips at the elementary school,’ ‘Use directly for kids.’ And ‘help everyone please.’ These are just some of the feedback that we received.”

Student board member Felix Myers urged spending the money in proportion with some of the highest activities costs. For him, that meant high school activities involving travel. “When you’re talking about a $200 trip every month,” Myers said, “it adds up.”