Lauren Stichert, a senior at Thunder Mountain High School, testifies before the Juneau Board of Education during a meeting about the school district’s budget crisis Tuesday night at Juneau-Douglas High School: Yadaa.at Kalé. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Lauren Stichert, a senior at Thunder Mountain High School, testifies before the Juneau Board of Education during a meeting about the school district’s budget crisis Tuesday night at Juneau-Douglas High School: Yadaa.at Kalé. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

District leaders focus on least, most dramatic school consolidation options to cope with budget crisis

All proposals consolidate both middle schools into one, leave sizable remaining deficit.

Juneau School District leaders tentatively narrowed their forcus on options for consolidating schools to help resolve the district’s financial crisis to either the least or most impactful proposals at the end of six hours of meetings Tuesday night.

All scenarios would consolidate Juneau’s two middle schools into one during the coming school year, transferring sixth-grade students to elementary schools in the process. Consolidating Juneau two high schools into one — the most contentious option so far — and closing at least one elementary school also remain possibilities.

However, officials remain divided over what path to take, as ongoing public pleas for a gradual phase-in — possibly over years — are colliding with the legal need for a balanced budget plan a month from now.

“Rather than being in a position where we can kind of carefully evaluate the pros and cons, and long-term savings and short-term savings of all of these different models, we’re sort of in a position of just kind of deciding ahead of time how we’re going to take a wrecking ball to the district and then we’re going to sort out the details later,” said David Noon, one of the newest members of the Juneau Board of Education after winning a seat in last October’s election. “I don’t know if that’s an unfair characterization of what we’re up to here, but strikes me as suboptimal.”

Board Vice President Emil Mackey said that’s an entirely fair characterization, but members need to quickly decide on a plan of action regardless.

“We’re doing it because it’s the only choice we have,” he said. “Because we don’t have the time to really do much more research or waiting. Basically we have a trauma patient and our job is to do whatever we can do to stabilize that patient so that once they’re stabilized we can then focus on how to improve that patient over the long term.”

Karla Nash, a nurse for the Juneau School District, offers testimony about the district’s budget crisis during a Board of Education meeting on Tuesday night at Juneau-Douglas High School: Yadaa.at Kalé. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Karla Nash, a nurse for the Juneau School District, offers testimony about the district’s budget crisis during a Board of Education meeting on Tuesday night at Juneau-Douglas High School: Yadaa.at Kalé. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

District officials are scheduled to further consider options during a finance committee meeting at 1:30 p.m. Friday via Zoom and a school board work session at 8:30 a.m. Saturday at Juneau-Douglas High School: Yadaa.at Kalé.

The district is currently facing about $80.2 million in operating expenses during the coming year with only about $68.2 million to pay for them, on top of a nearly $8 million projected deficit for the current fiscal year ending June 30. Due to various statutory budget deadlines and legal requirements such as advance notice to employees being laid off, a state-approved plan must be presented to the Juneau Assembly by March 15 — although at that point there would be additional time for public input and some changes before the Assembly approves the overall municipal budget.

About one-third of the district’s 309 teachers would have to be laid off to close the district’s gap next yer, according to district officials offering it as an illustrative example. About 90% of the district’s operating budget is for employees’ salaries, benefits and other related costs.

Eight alternatives were presented to the Juneau Board of Education on Tuesday by Superintendent Frank Hauser, a total that has increased from the original three a few weeks ago based on public feedback and further study. The board, without taking a formal vote, generally agreed Hauser should compile more detailed information about three of the options:

• Two variations that consolidate Juneau’s two middle schools, with one option also closing at least one elementary school. The options are projected to save about $1.5 million and $2.5 million, respectively, during the coming fiscal year. The concept generally received the most positive feedback from parents, teachers and students during public meetings in recent weeks because it makes the fewest changes to the existing system.

• The option offering the highest savings to the district — about $3.8 million — by consolidating the high schools, middle schools and some elementary schools. Notable in comparison to some other options that close high schools, this alternative keeps grades 9-12 in high school instead of transferring ninth-grade students to middle school.

All of the consolidation options, however, leave the district with a considerable remaining deficit, ranging from about $8.2 million to about $10.5 million.

Juneau School District board members and administrators listen to public testimony during a meeting Tuesday night at Juneau-Douglas High School: Yadaa.at Kalé. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Juneau School District board members and administrators listen to public testimony during a meeting Tuesday night at Juneau-Douglas High School: Yadaa.at Kalé. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

A partial remedy for the remaining gap is expected to come from the city, with the Juneau Assembly agreeing in concept to cover the current year’s shortfall by providing about $3.9 million to cover “shared costs” and a $4 million zero-interest loan to be paid back in five years. The Assembly, for now, has given preliminary approval toward covering only $1.6 million of next year’s shared costs, with members saying they want to see the budget the district submits for next year before considering additional funding.

The current projected deficit also assumes there will be no increase in the state’s education funding formula of $5,960 per student. However, a one-time increase of $340 in the Base Student Allocation for the current year resulted in roughly $1.4 million in additional funding for the district — and a $300 increase for the coming year appears to be the starting point in negotiations between the state House and Senate during this year’s session.

If the Assembly agreed to fund about $4 million in shared costs during the next fiscal year, it would take a BSA increase of between roughly $1,000 to $1,500 to balance the district’s budget under the various consolidation scenarios.

About 15 students, parents and district employees signed up to offer public testimony during Tuesday’s meeting, much of it similar to the scores of comments made during a series of community meetings the past few weeks.

“I expect there’s going to be change, but kids don’t do well with the change,” said Sharyn Augustine, describing herself as a parent of two students at Thunder Mountain High School. “Kids need routine. They need stability. So if we can do this slowly, especially with the high school kids, if we’re doing it gradually over several years that would be really appreciated by the kids and really appreciate by the parents too.”

Zoe Lessard, a sophomore student government representative at TMHS, said she initially attended JDHS, giving her insight into “the different culture, climate and priorities” at the schools — and why keeping both schools rather than consolidating them is important.

“Combining the high schools will destroy these separate cultures,” she said. “It would take away any opportunity for new starts for students. For example, in my case JDHS did not work for me. I was anxious and didn’t feel accepted. But because our school district let me switch high schools it made a huge positive impact on my own mental health.”

Consolidating the high schools would also mean more crowded classes, competition for sports teams and other difficulties for students, Lessard said.

Such comments are why Noon said he cannot currently support a budget plan that consolidates the high schools.

“I think the urgency is felt,” he said. “But I also think that a lot of folks are feeling as though the urgency and the pressure might lead us to make some decisions that might not be in the students’ best interest. And for that reason I’m just personally not interested at this moment in talking about high school consolidation.”

Mackey countered by noting the alternatives for balancing the district’s books could be far worse for all students, teachers and others involved with the district.

“We have to close buildings or lay off teachers,” he said. “If you think that people are going to be pissed off about their high school, wait until they got 40 kids per classroom and no electives. Because I hate to tell you that’s what we’re looking at.”

• Contact Mark Sabbatini at mark.sabbatini@juneauempire.com or (907) 957-2306.

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