If the Sitka district is forced to lay off some untenured teachers, it’s likely that a few remaining staff positions would be “displaced” from Keet Gooshi Heen to Baranof Elementary, where there are an unusually high number of special needs students entering next year. However, having to consider dramatic cutbacks is an annual ritual in Alaska’s schools, because the legislature doesn’t appropriate funding until after most districts have built budgets for the following school year. (KCAW file photo)

The Sitka School Board is facing the uncomfortable possibility of cutting up to 15 teaching positions next year, unless the legislature comes through with some eleventh-hour funding for education across the state.

Six of the teaching positions on the chopping block are retirements. This method of reducing the size of the workforce is the easiest, but it still creates some tough choices about where to fill vacancies, where to make some classes larger – often called the PTR, or pupil-teacher ratio – or what programs to cut entirely.

On top of the six retirements, another eight or so teaching positions would have to be cut if nothing changes. Currently the district employs 27 teachers who have not completed the three full years needed to become tenured, and – in anticipation of possible cuts – have not yet been issued contracts.

At a special budget worksession with the school board on March 9, Superintendent Frank Hauser said that shifting the remaining untenured teachers around to fill critical roles would not be simple.

“Of those 27 people, we will potentially have to have some displacements, if the board decides to change some PTRs and reduce PTRs at certain schools that could have a ripple effect and displacement of some staff,” Hauser said. “We know we have a couple of positions open at Baranof Elementary School, if we have to lose some teachers at Keet Gooshi Heen, then those teachers might be displaced to another school depending on what their certification is.”

This predicament – this conversation – occurs in every school district board room across the state this time of year, since Alaska is one of very few states that doesn’t appropriate money for education, until after most districts have prepared their budgets for next year.

As in past legislatures, at least two bills have been introduced to increase the Base Student Allocation (BSA), or the money that the state contributes for the education of each child in the state. For students who have special needs, that number goes up by a multiplier of thirteen – but the added revenue can still fall short of the money needed to cover the extra staffing for special needs students.

District special education director Chris Voron said that Baranof Elementary is going to require a special needs case manager, to keep up with the expected 12 special needs students in kindergarten and first grade next year.

Voron said it was an unusual set of circumstances, between the pandemic and other issues, creating the special needs bubble.

“The most common areas of eligibility are speech impairment, or early childhood developmental delay, those are categories in early childhood that I would say there is an increase in need that we’re identifying,” Voron explained. “So the pandemic has had a effect on our special education needs. However, we would say that doesn’t really account for everything that we’re seeing. It’s just these are the families, these are students, that are here currently, coming into kindergarten next year. We just have a very significant amount of students that are what we call ‘low incidence,’ meaning students with autism, students with medical conditions, students that have those higher level of needs.”

Sitka School Board members did not have a lot of ideas at this point, except a general willingness to use district reserves to balance the budget next year – but not all the reserves. They looked at scenarios where the state raised the Base Student Allocations by different amounts, from $250 to $450, and even by $1,000, which many education advocates say is the minimum needed to keep up with inflation since 2016 – the last time the BSA was adjusted.

Any of those numbers – if they come to pass – would provide relief for the district. Sitka assembly member Tim Pike sat in on the worksession. He’s also a teacher at the high school. The uncomfortable conversation around potential teacher layoffs was familiar, because it happens – to some degree – almost every year.

He urged board members to come up with a plan, and hope they don’t have to use it.

“I can remember previous superintendents who would say, ‘Gosh, I’m crying wolf all the time here,’ ” Pike said. “You know, at some point, that will show up, but most of the time — and up until now, and all my time here — it has never showed up. Because the state does come through with money in the end, but we don’t know what it is until after we’ve all gone through the pain and suffering of this process.”

The Sitka School Board’s draft budget for 2024 stands at just under $24 million. The board will finalize its budget for adoption, and submission to the Sitka Assembly, on April 20.

Note: This story was updated on 3-16-23 to correct the length of service teachers must have in order to become tenured. In the Sitka district, teachers earn tenure on the first day of their fourth year of service.