Sitka High principal Sondra Lundvick told the school board that activities were in full swing at her school — with money leftover from last year’s fundraising. She was still waiting for a $132,000 city appropriation that was never deposited into the activities account last year. (SHS image)

In addition to classes, sports and activities are underway at Sitka High School – using funds raised by the students last year.

The expected allocation of district money that kicks off sports like Swimming and Cross Country, and activities like Debate and Drama, didn’t happen last year for reasons that remain unclear. And at its regular meeting Wednesday night (9-6-23) the Sitka School Board postponed making an allocation this year – until members could be sure there were funds to cover it.

This was the question that dogged the final weeks of former superintendent Frank Hauser’s tenure in Sitka: Why wasn’t an appropriation from the Sitka Assembly to help defray the costs of student activities deposited into the activities account?

Current interim superintendent Steve Bradshaw listened in to the tense board meeting last June when his predecessor was put on the ropes by concerned parents and coaches.

He attributed the missing money to a change in district accounting practices, rather than to any malfeasance.

“For my perception, it sounded a little bit like somebody was questioning where the funds went, when the funds were always there,” said Bradshaw. “And I don’t blame the former superintendent, and I don’t blame the board for wanting to be cautious with how they spend that money, because of the fear of cutting teachers out of the classrooms. That has been a priority on this board for quite a few years now.

“That money” is $132,000 which is distributed at the beginning of the school year to all student activities, in chunks of $6,000. Bradshaw proposed that the board authorize a transfer of the money from the general fund to the activities account, and put the controversy to bed. But he wanted members to realize that it wasn’t just loose change: $132,000 is approximately the cost of a full-time teacher.

In any case, the money for a transfer simply may not be there.

“I’m not necessarily opposed to it,” said Tristan Guevin. “I just think, as a board member, I need to do my due diligence and my fiduciary responsibility and be able to answer that question: Do we have the money to do this?”

Member Tristan Guevin was on the board last spring when it adopted a bare-bones budget that just about drained the district savings account. By his math, a $132,000 transfer – though needed – would put the district in the red.

And he was also concerned that the proposed transfer would benefit high school students exclusively.

“I think we need to have a broader conversation,” he said. “And this gets back to transparency and to our role engaging students and parents and families and the community and all of our stakeholders. I want to have a discussion. I want to know how student activity money is allocated across all of the Sitka School District.”

Guevin didn’t think the conversation could move forward until the books had been closed on the last fiscal year – which they weren’t. He motioned to table the transfer until the next meeting, when the board would have a better grasp on its finances.

High School principal Sondra Lundvick urged the board to not wait too long to act. Student programs were in full swing, using unspent money that they had raised last year.

“By October, we already have activities going on,” Lundvick said. “We have Cross Country, Volleyball, Swimming. We hosted swimming   this past weekend; Volleyball is going on right now. These guys have already begun, they didn’t get their allocation last year, and while the city has promised that $132,000 for this year, they still haven’t seen that.”

Lundvick said she felt some of the hope for the student activities budget surrounding Sitka voters’ passage of the marijuana tax (“Prop 3”) last year was “crumbling,” after the State Department of Education this summer cracked down on the Juneau School District for supplementing its budget with local money in excess of state law – so-called “outside the cap” funding. That decision could have major ramifications for Sitka’s schools, which have depended on “outside the cap” funding for student activities for decades.

Board member Tristan Guevin recognized the need for haste; he just didn’t want to spend money the district didn’t have.