Tana O’Leary says she’s concerned her kids might soon be split up into different elementary schools as part of the Juneau School District’s effort to solve its financial crisis, putting stress on the siblings being separated as well as her due to more complications getting her kids to and from home.
The district is currently evaluating five school consolidation options — two more than originally proposed a couple of weeks ago, with the additional ones based on parent and teacher feedback — to help resolve a projected deficit of nearly $8 million for the fiscal year ending June 30. The shortfall is largely attributed to a series of accounting errors, with district and city officials considering both steep cuts and a loan to help balance the books.
All five consolidation options move sixth-grade students to the elementary school level rather than middle school, potentially easing middle school consolidation due to fewer students, but four options also split elementary schools into separate K-3 and 4-6 facilities.
It’s those four options that are particularly concerning to O’Leary.
“I’d like it to be a slow change rather than a big change,” she said Wednesday after the first of three “Community Budget Input Sessions” to discuss the crisis. “It could be just keeping all the elementary schools and the high schools the same, and just getting rid of one middle school. That seems like the most conservative option. That would be the easiest time on families. Maybe it’s not the best for our budget.”
About 75 parents, teachers and students attended the Wednesday evening meeting at Thunder Mountain High School, where an overview of the budget was followed by two rounds of subgroup discussions for people to express opinions about various aspects of proposed solutions to the district’s crisis. Many participants, similar to O’Leary, expressed strong feelings about retaining much of the district’s current structure, ranging from not wanting to see the two high schools consolidated into one to ensuring programs such as cultural and special education remain strong.
The five restructuring plans under consideration as of Wednesday include:
• Consolidating the two middle schools into one and reducing the number of students by transferring sixth grade to elementary schools.
• Consolidating the middle schools, and “pairing” neighborhood elementary schools into grades K-3 and 4-6.
• The K-3 and 4-6 pairings, and consolidating grades 7-9 at Thunder Mountain High School and grades 10-12 at Juneau-Douglas High School: Yadaa.at Kale. Both existing middle school buildings would close.
• The K-3 and 4-6 pairings, consolidating grades 7-8, and grades 9-12. There would be a transition year during 2024-25 where TMHS students could remain there before transferring to JDHS the following year.
• The K-3 and 4-6 pairings, with grades 7-8 at “Thunder Mountain Middle School” and grades 9-12 at JDHS.
One proposed change that had strong support in a subgroup discussing the five consolidation options is moving sixth-grade students to elementary schools. Research, according to a few teachers who spoke during the session, shows K-6 schools allow students to transition better to middle school — but they also opposed the idea of splitting those grades into separate “lower” and “upper” elementary schools.
“The only model in my brain that was an option was (number) one because it kept that K through six,” said Amanda Babin, a former paraeducator and parent of a child entering kindergarten soon. “It’s great you are trying to get new ideas. But because K through six is still split for the other four, those don’t feel like options to me.”
In an action that would be repeated dozens of times in the various subgroups, District Chief of Staff Kristin Bartlett made sure as the moderator of the discussion that a note to include K-6 elementary schools in more than one restructuring option was written down on a poster-sized sheet of paper that would be hung alongside others after the meeting. Other district leaders including school board members and Superintendent Frank Hauser helped lead portions of the events during the meeting.
Changing the current structure of the high schools wasn’t popular with two students participating in the subgroup discussing options. Lauren Stichert, a senior at TMHS, said she feels preserving the four-year high school experience is especially important for students looking ahead to college.
“For me, if ninth (grade) was also separated from high school I feel like that would get confusing for credit attainment,” she said. “Almost every single high school in America has four years. You need to have that four years to earn credits for college, to have those different experiences, to have four years of high school to learn to what it’s like in college even if you don’t go there. I feel like that should stay as normal as possible.”
The possibility of consolidating the two high schools concerned Hannah Watts, another senior at TMHS, for both motivational and practical reasons.
“Having the two separate schools is really important,” she said. “Because as a student it was really important like to have that option. Like do I want to go to JD or do I want to go TM, do I want to graduate from either one of those classes? And I think taking away the option to graduate from TM is not the greatest idea to me.”
Both schools have distinct histories and alumni, Watts said. On a practical level, she said the long trip many students would be required to make and limited parking would present problems.
The meeting was moderated by Timi Tullis and Lori Grassgreen, both officials with the Association of Alaska School Boards, as a supplement to public meetings the Juneau Board of Education is conducting to consider remedies to the crisis and get public input. A second in-person session is scheduled from 5-6:30 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 6, in the Juneau-Douglas High School: Yadaa.at Kalé Library. A virtual session via Zoom is also scheduled from 5-6 p.m. Monday, Feb. 5, with the meeting link available at www.juneauschools.org.
Tullis, in an interview after the meeting, said she has helped facilitate many such meetings for districts statewide — as many communities are facing financial struggles due to lack of state funding and declining enrollment — but the causes and scope of Juneau’s situation are unique.
“This is the biggest budget deficit I have seen for any district in my 24 years at AASB,” she said. “No one has ever had this big of a one-time deficit that they were trying to dig out of.”
• Contact Mark Sabbatini at email@example.com or (907) 957-2306.