Daily Sitka Sentinel

Board Weighs Cuts in School Spending

    The hard decisions will have to wait for another day.
    Facing a budget shortfall in the neighborhood of $1.3 million, the School Board looked at potential program and position cuts that could help balance the budget for the 2012-13 school year during a work session Thursday night at Keet Gooshi Heen.
    And while some cuts were debated, including a reduction in the more than $400,000 planned for technology, the School Board delayed action and made plans for another work session later this month.
    Things like the Blatchley Middle School shop program, K-2 music,  Blatchley pool, the activities director position at Sitka High, art classes at BMS and Sitka High, the district’s cultural program, and coaching stipends were tossed around as items for potential cuts Thursday.
     But Superintendent Steve Bradshaw stopped short of recommending any particular cuts and floated the idea of tapping the district’s reserve account to balance the budget.
    “The things we’re talking about, there’s nothing good here that will help us,” an emotional Bradshaw said, adding: “(At some point) enough is enough. You cannot continue here without impacting what we do for kids.”
    A number of variables are at play in the school budget discussion. The School Board is cobbling together a budget without a clear idea of whether the Legislature will increase state funding for education this year.
    Also, competing proposals to extend the Secure Rural Schools program, which brought more than $500,000 to the School District for the current school year, are being debated in Congress. The U.S. Senate passed a bill this week that would extend the program, but the House is working on a vastly different proposal, school officials said.
    It is very difficult to handicap how the politics will play out in Juneau and Washington, D.C., though there are signs that districts around the state will receive at least some one-time funding from the state.
    Gov. Parnell said this week he would add $30 million for school districts in his budget request.
    But the governor has not changed his opposition to an increase in the base student allocation, which school boards throughout the state are seeking. Local school officials are still holding out hope that the Legislature will pass an increase in the BSA, which would ramp up the funding Alaska school districts receive from the state over three years.
    Then there is the Assembly. The School Board is assuming the Assembly will approve a request for city funds at the same level as last year, $5.186 million.
     The city is facing its own budget shortfall, and city Administrator Jim Dinley has sought budget cuts from his department heads.
    The School Board, however, wants to hold the line. Bradshaw argued that while the city’s tax revenue is down 5 percent over the past three years, city funding for schools has been cut 8 percent. And he reiterated his call Thursday for the city to find a way to “add that three percent” back into the school budget.
     Three students in attendance at the work session questioned spending so much money on technology while the board considers making cuts to music, art and other programs. Nicole Seehafer, the student representative on the School Board, said some of the new technology at the high school was not being used, and that new computers were not a priority for students. Seehafer had previously spoken against the elimination of coaching stipends. She said the estimated $111,000 in savings would mean that certain sports would disappear from the district.
    “That’s what keeps kids in school,” she said. “I think that would be a big mistake.”
    Sitka High students Chaya and Annemarie Pike agreed with Seehafer that funding for technology should not take priority over teachers and school programs.
    “Keeping teachers is a little more important than keeping laptops” Chaya said.
    Chaya’s and Annemarie’s father Tim Pike, a shop teacher at the High School, picked up on an idea floated by board member Tim Fulton to put cuts in technology spending on hold. Technology spending was not listed along with the 12 items Bradshaw brought forward as possible cuts Thursday, but Fulton said the School Board would be remiss not to look at the $427,000 line item.
    Tim Pike said that money is “a second reserve.” He suggested putting off the purchases until after the formal enrollment count is conducted next fall and the district knows how much state money Sitka will receive.
    Board President Lon Garrison has repeatedly said that technology is a vital part of the 21st century classroom.
    He told the audience Thursday that the board is not putting computers ahead of teachers. He said technology spending is not about “the latest gadget,” but rather a “change of paradigm” in how students learn.
    Both he and Bradshaw said they were reluctant to cut technology this year because of the School Board’s goal to continue ramping up spending up technology spending until it plateaus about at $500,000 a year.
    “(If) we step back now, there’s a good chance it becomes an easier target next year,” Bradshaw said.
    The board asked Bradshaw to work up three budget options – each would use a different amount from undedicated reserves to help balance the budget – that will be taken up at a work session March 19. The School Board had planned to finish the budget that night, but has since decided to delay a final vote until the end of the month.
    The Assembly is scheduled to debate a proposal to forward fund the school district at its regular meeting on March 27.
    The School Board is required to submit its request for city funding by May 1.
    Board members Tonia Rioux and Cass Pook were not present at the meeting Thursday.

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