Sitka is thinking about capitalizing on the rebound in cruise tourism to help maintain its schools. A ballot proposition that would impose a dedicated one-percent seasonal sales tax passed the local assembly this week (7-11-23), and is likely to appear before voters this fall.

A one-percent seasonal sales tax in Sitka is nothing new. For nearly two decades, the city has raised the sales tax from 5% to 6% each summer to pay down school bonds – but that debt was paid off this year, and the extra one-percent tax automatically sunset. Now, the Sitka Assembly wants to ask voters to reinstate the seasonal tax – permanently.
Mayor Steven Eisenbeisz cosponsored the proposition with member Kevin Mosher. Eisenbeisz said establishing a fund for school infrastructure was long overdue. 

“For probably eight of my last nine years [on the assembly], I’ve been fighting for a mechanism to fund school building maintenance and replacement. Right now we have a whopping $0 saved up for our aging school infrastructure. And obviously, that’s not going to cut it, we do need to provide top quality buildings for our kids,” Eisenbeisa said. He added that while he understood the ramifications of reinstating the sales tax, he was concerned that the state’s support for new school construction or major rehab will diminish in the near future. 

A few Sitkans spoke in favor of the proposition, including former city administrator Keith Brady. However, Brady wondered if they would consider splitting the fund to cover some teacher pay as well. 

“It also helps that the tourism that we’re having continues to increase. This helps out with funding the needs of our city, especially our school district,” Brady said. “The only change that would make…somehow that it goes into — maybe a portion of it with discussion of the school district– [goes] to help fund teachers, because we keep losing positions. And it keeps making it harder and harder for the teachers to do their jobs with less and less.”

Assembly member Thor Christianson said he could support the ballot proposition as written, but like Brady, thought they might consider dividing the money up- instead putting a small portion toward city infrastructure.

“I don’t know if we want to think about setting a split between school infrastructure and infrastructure in general,” Christianson said. “Like if we said 70% goes towards school infrastructure and 30% towards roads and the like. That might be worth thinking about.” 

The assembly discussed the idea, but ultimately agreed that, for now, funding one thing instead of two would keep things straightforward, and be more palatable at the ballot box.

Not everyone in the public saw it that way. Shirley Robards, who owns a downtown retail store, didn’t think voters would like the idea. She discouraged the assembly from reinstating the tax.

“I just don’t understand it,” Robards said.”All of a sudden, you need another percent? I don’t know. I just don’t know. I’ve talked to a lot of people. Yeah, go ahead and put it on the voter thing. I don’t think you’re gonna win, though.”

Mayor Eisenbeisz said that if the tax proposition makes it on the ballot, he would pass the torch to the voters to get it across the finish line.

“I find myself in the position simply to bring it forward to the voters, and I want the citizens of Sitka to take ownership and lead on this,” Eisenbeisz said. “If there are interest groups that feel strongly either way, I encourage them to get out and and inform people as to the vote, I don’t find it to be my role to to advocate on on a ballot issue like this.”

Ultimately the assembly approved the ballot prop 5-0.

Should municipal employees be allowed to serve on the school board?

The Sitka Assembly also gave the nod on first reading to another ballot proposition on Tuesday. This one would allow municipal employees to serve on the Sitka School Board. 

The city’s charter prevents “elected municipal officers” from serving in other offices or on city staff. That means municipal employees can’t serve on the assembly or school board. Assembly member Kevin Mosher, who co-sponsored the item with Tim Pike, said allowing staff to serve on the school board is one path toward helping the board recruit and retain members. 

“This was not done for any one person,” Mosher said. “Mr. Pike and I are looking into this because it is very difficult to find people to serve on the school board. And there have been people in the past who are employees of the municipality who have expressed an interest.”

Mosher also challenged the idea that opening up the board to city staff presented a conflict of interest. Unlike the assembly, the school board has no say over the city’s budget or finances. And the proposal would not open the opportunity up to school district employees. 

Former Sitka School Board president Blossom Teal-Olsen, who resigned from the board earlier this summer, said it was a good idea, recalling some late nights she spent on the phone, recruiting for the board. She also noted that Sitka’s school board, unlike other districts in the state, is uncompensated- another possible deterrent.

“It is a huge detriment within the city, because first and foremost it stops equity, because you have to be a certain type of demographic that can supply your time,” Olsen said. “It is like a part time job.”

“I do want to bring that issue up,” she added. “I hope in the future, it can be ratified to honor the time that the school board spends to clean all of the situations that they tackle.”

The assembly unanimously approved on first reading a ballot proposition to allow municipal employees to serve on the Sitka School Board.

But either proposition it can be printed on ballots for the October municipal election, they must each be approved by the assembly again, on final reading.