The Sitka School Board met Tuesday (9-20-16) at Keet Gooshi Heen Elementary School to discuss absenteeism.
The Sitka School Board was faced with the choice of keeping 2-3 classroom positions at Keet Gooshi Heen, or taking district reserves down to their lowest level ever: $10,000. The board decided to keep the teachers. (File photo)

The Sitka School Board has gone out on a limb – maybe the longest limb it’s ever gone out on – in passing a budget for next year.

In a split vote last Thursday (4-20-23), the board voted to keep staffing levels the same as this year, and to almost completely drain the district’s reserves.

Note: The Sitka School District’s $23 million dollar budget for next year now goes to the Sitka Assembly for final adoption.

The most money for education in Alaska comes from the legislature, and that’s the rub for Sitka, and every other school district in the state.

The legislature hasn’t decided how much it will spend next year, leaving schools to draft their budgets based on guesswork.

It’s an infuriating and agonizing process for local communities that want to spend as much as they can on schools – keeping good teachers, recruiting new ones, and maintaining sports, music, and other extracurricular programs that incentivize attendance.

Board member Tristan Guevin attributed much of Sitka’s difficult position to a faulty legislative process.

“We’re building a budget without an idea of what our revenues will be because of inaction by the state,” said Guevin. “We’ve talked to death the situation with the BSA, that it hasn’t been increased since July  of 2016. In that same time period, we faced about 25-percent inflation. So in essence, that flat funding is a budget decrease – a significant budget decrease.”

The BSA stands for Base Student Allocation, or the amount of money the state gives each district for each student. The BSA has been increased once in the last seven years, and been bumped several times with one-time grants, but – as Guevin noted – it’s never been adjusted for inflation. Several bills have been introduced in the legislature this year that might provide yet another bump, but it’s anyone’s guess where the final number will land.

This left the Sitka School Board to consider only two options: whether to cut three teachers at Keet Gooshi Heen and increase class sizes in fourth and fifth grade, or keep those teachers and take the district savings account to its lowest level ever – just over $10,000. (Note: The district must maintain restricted reserves of about $65,000. The $10,000 balance is in excess of that.)

Board member Todd Gebler wanted to keep the teachers.

“It is an enormous risk,” said Gebler. “And a lot of it, you can put a label on it, the state is not doing what they should for us. And that is the truth: they’re really not doing it. But in order for the teachers to do what they need to do, small class sizes are important. And in order for us to do that, I’m very, very happy to keep those three positions at Keet.”

The risk is that the proposed budget assumes the state will increase the BSA with a one-time shot of $450. Again, it’s just a guess. Bills have been introduced in the legislature with higher amounts ($680 to over $1,000), but it’s a long road before any of them arrive at the governor’s desk. The final amount could also be lower than $450. In that event, the district couldn’t meet its obligations, as pointed out by Mike Vieira, president of the Sitka Education Association, which represents teachers.

“If you can’t meet payroll – that’s us (teachers),” Vieira said. “I think that puts us all in the same boat.”

Another alternative before the board would be to reduce staff at Keet Gooshi Heen Elementary by two positions, and transfer them to Baranof Elementary School. The resulting draw on district savings would then leave close to $200,000 in the bank. This was the preference of board president Blossom Teal-Olsen, who was uncomfortable with going all the way down to $10,000.

“I cannot. I cannot bring myself to be okay with walking away, knowing that it would jeopardize our whole community, knowing that our fund balance would be left at such a level,” said Teal-Olsen.

In the end, other board members overruled Teal-Olsen, and voted to approve a budget that leaves the teaching staff intact (with the exception of eliminating one teaching position at Raven’s Way, adding a Special Education case manager at Baranof Elementary, a social worker at Pacific High, and a reading specialist), draws on $1.7 million in savings, and assumes the legislature will allocate at least another $450 per student to education this year which – as yet – it has come to no agreement on.