Health and education experts, including Juneau School District Superintendent Bridget Weiss, gave testimony to lawmakers Thursday on the challenges facing schools as they try and reopen in the pandemic (Peter Segall | Juneau Empire)

Health and education experts, including Juneau School District Superintendent Bridget Weiss, gave testimony to lawmakers Thursday on the challenges facing schools as they try and reopen in the pandemic (Peter Segall | Juneau Empire)

Coronavirus costs rise for school district

Covid adds to regular costs.

The coronavirus pandemic is making what was already “inadequate” funding for the Juneau School District a more serious problem, as schools’ needs are rising exponentially, said JSD Superintendent Bridget Weiss.

“When we look at our recent history of funding, there’s been a lack of adequate funding and when we look forward to student needs…that puts us in a pretty fragile place,” Weiss told the Empire in an interview Thursday.

Eight superintendents, including Weiss, called in from across the state Thursday morning for a House Education Committee meeting held by telephone. Superintendents, educators and state health officials gave testimony to lawmakers about how to provide meaningful education to students in a safe environment, both at school and at home.

In Juneau, the district was able to purchase a device for every student to take home for distance learning, Weiss told the committee, but as the district looks ahead to its future needs, it’s clear more money will be needed.

“When Juneau built their budget for (Fiscal Year 2021), in order to make fewer cuts, we drew our fund balance $200,000,” which is dangerously low already Weiss said. “We allocated some of those savings back to the response to COVID. We now have an anticipated fund balance of $100,000, well under what our policy expects us to carry. As we look long term at the social-emotional needs of our students, the health and safety of our staff we will need more financial support.”

[District’s plan for approaching school year comes into focus]

The school district announced earlier this month it would reopen with four half-days and each Wednesday would be an “e-learning” day in an attempt to maximize social distancing. Education experts agree distance learning is not as effective for some students as in-person learning, and teachers and staff are trying to prepare to help struggling students.

“To even begin our school year, we have to look forward to the other side of this. There’s no question we’re going to have some loss of learning and will need to implement some plan to catch up,” Weiss said. “Next summer is going to be a huge opportunity to make up some ground in our learning needs, so how we build summer programming is going to be really important, and that’s going to cost a lot of money to do it right.”

Schools are also places where many students receive meals and access the internet, Weiss said, and steps have been taken to make those things more available. Students who can’t afford internet at home can be given mobile internet hot spots and school network connectivity has expanded to school parking lots, Weiss said, allowing access outside of school hours.

Schools in Alaska are funded through base student allocation, a certain amount for each student based on a formula, and through additional Legislative Operating Grants, which are understood as a one-time payment from the Legislature each year, according to JSD Board of Education President Brian Holst.

But this year, the LOG didn’t come. It was vetoed by Gov. Mike Dunleavy, who said that federal relief money would be able to fill the gaps. State laws cap how much local municipalities can spend on their schools, an amount that is based on a percentage of much much state money a district receives.

CARES Act spending doesn’t count toward those local match dollars, Weiss said, so the amount of money the City and Borough of Juneau is even allowed to appropriate to schools is less than it would be under normal circumstances.

Holst said the CBJ Assembly has funded the school district to the fullest amount possible for the past several years, but this year, with no state dollars lifting the cap the city was forced to limit the amount of money it gave to schools.

[Gov looks to federal funds to fill gaps in budget]

JSD received $26.8 million from the city this year, Holst said, and the veto of the LOG was $30 million, which translated to a loss of $1.191 million to Juneau from the state and limited the city’s cap by $274,000. That’s a total loss of $1.465 million. But JSD did receive $1 million in CARES Act money, meaning the district lost out on $465,000.

The district’s CARES money has already been spent or allocated mostly on devices for students and staff salaries, Weiss said. Teachers and staff are working additional hours during the summer to help develop policies and education ideas for teaching during the pandemic, Weiss said. Administration staff are asked to return a week early to help prepare for an entirely different kind of school year.

Another round of federal relief money is expected, but it’s unclear what that package will look like. In having heard the needs of educators, Rep. Andi Story, D-Juneau, believes the Legislature will have better information about community needs going into the new school year.

“I think the hearing today was an important step to get information out, for districts to express their needs so we can target funding for schools,” she said in an interview with the Empire. “I was pleased today to hear how well schools had been working with the health community to develop flexible plans and meet the needs of the community.”

She hopes the federal money would come soon, Story said, because it is important to take the social and emotional needs of students and staff into consideration when funding schools.

School employees have worked hard to provide education to students during the pandemic, she said.

“It would be great if we could help them not have to worry about the finance,” Story said.

• Contact reporter Peter Segall at psegall@juneauempire.com. Follow him on Twitter at @SegallJnoEmpire.

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