The Sitka School Board is hoping public pressure will push the legislature to increase school funding in Alaska, or else the district could face potentially drastic cuts.

The board met in a work session last Thursday (2-9-23) to hear an overview of the budget for the next school year, and the numbers aren’t pretty.

Superintendent Frank Hauser warned board members that cuts are coming.

“We are projecting, if we do not see any relief in the form of a new or increased Base Student Allocation (i.e. state funding), that we will have to have some budget reductions which could include increase pupil teacher ratio, reduction in staff and potential reductions in programs,” said Hauser. “And those will be needed to really balance the budget for the deficit that we’re looking at.”

Hauser has previously reminded the board that the Sitka School District is in no way a unique position: Districts across the state are looking at deficits, and the blame is most often placed on the failure of the state to keep up with increasing costs. There is a bill in the Alaska Legislature to increase state funding by $1,000 per pupil. Hauser said that if it passed, it would cover Sitka’s nearly $3 million dollar deficit, and then some.

“It’s important to know that there is some conversations happening in the legislature right now around the Base Student Allocation increase,” said Hauser. “If there is a Base Student Allocation increase, that will have a positive impact on the district. Currently, right now, with a $2.79 million deficit, it would require a Base Student Allocation increase of just under $900 to essentially break even, and potentially even put a few thousand dollars in the in the bank account.”

As it’s only February, no one is expecting quick action from the Legislature. Sitka High Math teacher Ryan Myers is the father of student board member Felix Myers. The pair were among those who attended a fly-in last weekend to lobby the legislature on behalf of schools. Ryan Myers told the board that the Legislature would only act if there were significant public pressure.

“There is absolutely no guarantee of a raise in the Base Student Allocation,” said Myers. “There are people that want that, and there are plenty of people that don’t. And there are people that want it at $1,000; people that want it “1,500. And there’s people that want it at $250. And if we’re counting on having teachers and programs and a school district that functions, that’s not a want, that’s a need. And I’m just stating for the public record that we need to be putting pressure on our legislators, we need to be writing them, we need to be putting things in the newspaper, we need to spread the word far and wide that this is not a small problem. If we have to pink slip 10 to 20 teachers and people in the school district because we need to balance a budget, and we just hope that they’re going to stick around and wait for us to decide we can pay them. That’s a dangerous game to play.”

The Sitka School Board often begins the budget process in the hole, and is forced to consider cuts that often it’s spared from making, thanks to an 11th-hour infusion of cash from federal or state sources.

Board member Todd Gebler doesn’t see a rescue coming this year. He urged the public to start contacting legislators.

“Without proper funding, school board members are going to be cutting programs and cutting teachers and cutting everything,” said Gebler. “There’s no more low hanging fruit to cut.”

The Sitka School Board will hold its next budget work session on March 9 in Harrigan Centennial Hall. The budget for the next school year is scheduled to be finalized and adopted on April 20.