In this June 2017 photo, a pedestrian walks by City Hall. (Alex McCarthy | Juneau Empire File)

In this June 2017 photo, a pedestrian walks by City Hall. (Alex McCarthy | Juneau Empire File)

Early childhood education funding will not appear on October ballot

Vacancies on Assembly make difference in long-awaited vote

Despite the majority of sitting City and Borough of Juneau Assembly members being in favor of putting a child care funding initiative on the October ballot, it will not appear on the ballot.

The prospective ballot initiative asks the public if about $2.8 million in funding for a child care and daycare program called Juneau Best Starts should be paid for with property tax revenue. Property taxes would have to rise to fund the measure, according to the ordinance, to the tune of $58 for each $100,000 of assessed property value.

With two Assembly members having recently resigned, only seven Assembly members were present at Monday’s meeting. Still, according to city charter code 3.12(f)(1), an Assembly has to have five votes in favor of an ordinance for it to pass. Although four of the seven sitting Assembly members voted to put the initiative on the ballot, there needed to be five votes to pass it.

Joy Lyon, executive director of the Association for the Education of Young Children of Southeast Alaska, was disappointed, saying she wanted the Assembly to give voters a chance to make the choice of how their tax money was spent. She said she was almost at a loss for words in the Assembly members’ apparent lack of faith in Juneau’s voters.

“For children and families, this is just another setback,” Lyon said. “This is going to mean more lost opportunities. We’ll certainly be looking at promoting people to really ask those hard questions to candidates so that they can make an informed decision about who they want to represent them.”

Assembly members Rob Edwardson, Maria Gladziszewski, Loren Jones and Jesse Kiehl voted in favor of putting it on the ballot. Mayor Ken Koelsch, Deputy Mayor Jerry Nankervis and Assembly member Mary Becker voted against it. The trio of no voters acknowledged this was an extremely difficult decision. Koelsch was the first to state his opposition, and led off by saying that in talking to young families in the community, the same issue arises time and again.

“Child care always comes up first and foremost,” Koelsch said. “You don’t have to convince me that child care is a need in this community.”

Koelsch argued that the educational component and the child care/daycare component could be separated. What he was particularly adamant about Monday was that he didn’t want property tax to fund this measure. He said there could be ways to work with the Juneau School District or other entities in town to find other ways to fund it.

Nankervis and Becker agreed, and Nankervis said the city has allocated a great deal of money to the school district in recent years, often funding the district even more than the district requests.

Gladziszewski made a motion to reconsider the vote, and the Assembly members will take another vote on it in the near future. The ballot goes to the printer on Aug. 22, so the re-vote could happen as soon as next week. The results are unlikely to change, though, with the members set to be the same.

Best Starts aims to better prepare children before they go into kindergarten. Lyon said she was looking back at her records recently and saw that she and her colleagues began presenting this idea to the Assembly all the way back in 2003. The past two years, she said, were the most organized they have been.

During last year’s budget cycle, the Assembly members considered committing revenue from the 1 percent sales tax increase to Best Starts, but ended up not selecting it. This year, Best Starts supporters took a different route, trying to put the decision in the hands of the voters.

Lyon and fellow Best Starts proponent Kevin Ritchie have done the legwork, presenting their case to local groups and the Assembly tirelessly in the past two years in particular. Only 32 percent of kindergarten students in Juneau demonstrate 11 of 13 goals determined by the department as “kindergarten ready,” according to the Alaska Department of Education and Early Childhood Care and Development. The statewide average is 30 percent. Those skills range from communication to social interaction to general knowledge.

Some families have been forced to totally change their lives to afford child care. Mark Calvert and Sarah Shafer took turns holding their young son Christopher while they spoke to the Assembly members. With child care costs raising above $14,000 a year for them, they decided they can’t live in town anymore and are moving away this fall.

“We decided to leave Juneau because we can’t afford to raise our son here,” Calvert said. “We’re faced with the choice of staying in the status quo and falling further into a financial abyss to raise our son here.”

Lyon said she knew they would need one of Koelsch, Nankervis or Becker to flip their vote, and was hoping for the best. She wasn’t the only one unhappy about the dynamics of the vote. Recently resigned Assembly members Norton Gregory and Beth Weldon were in the audience at Monday’s meeting. Gregory has previously supported putting the Best Starts initiative on the ballot.

The Assembly members were going around at the end of Monday’s meeting, thanking Gregory and Weldon for their service. Jones, who argued and voted in favor of the ballot initiative, thanked Gregory and Weldon, but said he wished they were still on the Assembly.

“One of our votes (tonight) would have been a hell of a lot different,” Jones said.

• Contact reporter Alex McCarthy at 523-2271 or Follow him on Twitter at @akmccarthy.

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