Daily Sitka Sentinel

City to Make a Loan for School Budget?

    Assembly members had spent the previous two evenings wrestling with money problems.
    And they were at it again Thursday night, this time with the School Board.
    The meeting at Keet Gooshi Heen was fairly informal, but two Assembly members voiced support for lending the School District money from the city’s reserve account to help cover the district’s estimated $800,000 budget shortfall.
    School Board president Lon Garrison ran through the district’s estimated revenues and expenses and reiterated that with existing programs and staff  in place the district faces a deficit of about $1.3 million in 2012-13 budget.
    The School Board has already pledged to use $500,000 from district reserves to help soften the blow, bringing the budget gap down to about $800,000.
    Fresh off a lobbying trip to Juneau with fellow board member Tom Conley, Garrison said he expects the state to increase school funding, but there are many unknowns.
    A proposal to increase the base student allocation, a key part of the state’s education funding formula, passed quickly out of the Senate recently, but faces a much more uncertain future in the House, not to mention opposition from the governor. The proposal, which would add $125 to the BSA next year, would cost the state $30 million and bring upwards of $300,000 in additional state funds to Sitka.
    Garrison said it was much more likely that the state will approve a “one-time” funding boost, probably for energy relief. The trick is that the School Board must finalize its budget and send its request for local funding to the Assembly by April 1, long before the dust will have settled in Juneau.
    “We don’t know until it’s too late how it’s going to work,” Garrison said.
    Assembly member Thor Christianson suggested that the city could loan money to the School District to help cover the budget shortfall.
    Christianson said he agreed with Garrison that the state would probably increase school funding, and that the loan could be repaid when, and if, that money shows up.
    Mike Reif seemed receptive to the idea, though the conversation was cut off by Mayor Cheryl Westover, who said she was uncomfortable having the budget discussion away from the Assembly table. Westover said that Christianson should get a co-sponsor for his proposal and bring it formally to the Assembly.
    The scenario that Christianson proposed Thursday would be similar to what occurred last year, when the Assembly agreed to give the School District a larger share of the city’s federal secure rural schools funding. The School District paid back the extra $300,000 after state money for energy relief, approved during the 2011 Legislative session, came through.
    The School Board also got a bump in state funding this fall, after the annual enrollment count. The board had set its budget on a projected enrollment of 1,285 students, but found 1,306 students in the hallways of Sitka’s schools when the formal enrollment count was finished. The School Board got about $480,000 in extra state money as a result of the increased enrollment, in large part because of an increase in intensive needs students, who count 13 times toward the BSA. The School Board had budgeted for 33 intensive needs students, but 37 were enrolled at the time of the census in  October.
    The last few years, the School Board has set its enrollment numbers conservatively in an attempt to avoid the shock to the budget that would occur if enrollment turned out to be less than projected. This year, the board is projecting the fall enrollment at 1,295 students.
    Christianson proposed lending the schools $500,000 – he said he was just picking a “round number” – from city reserves, and seemed confident the money could be paid back.
     He said he had recently spent two hours volunteering in a classroom at Baranof Elementary School, where his wife works. The student-teacher ratio at Baranof has risen to about 20 to 1 and could go higher if staffing cuts at the elementary level are part of the district’s proposal to balance the budget.
    “It was pretty wild,” Christianson said of his time at Baranof, adding that the young students were “still learning how to sit.”
    The School Board has not yet debated specific cuts that might be made to the budget. Garrison has said that entire programs, like foreign language, art, music and school sports, could be on the table. And he said that if the School Board manages to trim the deficit down to about $400,000, the district could still lose up to eight full-time employees. The proposed cuts are expected to be revealed publicly at a School Board work session March 8, with the board’s final public hearing on the spending plan scheduled for March 19. Garrison told the Assembly members  the School Board would need to know about a potential city loan prior to the final hearing.
    There was not much back-and-forth Thursday night, though Assembly member Mim McConnell said she had heard a lot of negative comments about the district’s plan to spend $427,000 on technology. Garrison said he had heard many of the same comments. He said it was “not true that we value technology over teachers,” but there was mounting evidence that technology is an essential component of the 21st century classroom.
    The district spent about $394,000 on technology last year. Garrison said there might be a debate on ramping up that amount, but that the board is committed to keeping technology in the district current
    The district’s technology spending push began in 2009, when the board voted to use its share of federal stimulus dollars on things like new computers, accounting software and a new network.
    Garrison said the district’s computer system was “on the verge” of collapse before it was updated and that the board wanted to move away from the “shotgun” approach to technology that had been used in the past.
    The district ultimately wants to spend about $500,000 a year on technology, and is in the midst of a five-year plan to reach that funding level, Garrison said.
    Garrison was also asked about the district’s reserve account. The school’s reserve balance is expected to be at $1.2 million when the fiscal year ends on June 30. The account would drop down to about $700,000 if $500,000 is put into the budget that is currently being developed.
    Garrison said the board could possibly dip into the reserves a bit more, but he wasn’t comfortable going much lower.
    City Finance Director Jay Sweeney also seemed to caution against relying on reserves to balance the budget. When the idea of floating the school district money from the city’s account was raised, Sweeney said the city’s $9 million in the bank – this figure includes sales tax revenue the city expects to receive, but the “uncommitted cash” reserve balance is closer to $6.4 million —  was a “strategic savings account” to be used in the event of something “catastrophic” occurring in Sitka.
    The School Board’s preliminary budget shows no increase in funding from the city. The schools got $5.026 million from the city last year, and have requested that amount again.
    At one point in the meeting, Reif asked Garrison if he planned to ask the Assembly for more money. Garrison said it was an option, but “not the top option.”
    “We’re going to look for cuts in the budget,” he said.
    But Superintendent Steve Bradshaw closed Thursday’s meeting by noting that local funding for education was down about 8 percent over the last three years, falling from a high of $5.5 million in 2009.
    He said that in that time city tax revenue was down about five percent and asked the Assembly to “find a way to get that three percent back in there.”

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