Nanibaa’ Frommherz, a student at Thunder Mountain High School, testifies about a proposal to help the Juneau School District with its financial crisis during a Juneau Assembly Committee of the Whole meeting Monday night at City Hall. The meeting was moved from the Assembly Chambers to a conference room toward the end due to technical errors that disrupted the live online feed. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Nanibaa’ Frommherz, a student at Thunder Mountain High School, testifies about a proposal to help the Juneau School District with its financial crisis during a Juneau Assembly Committee of the Whole meeting Monday night at City Hall. The meeting was moved from the Assembly Chambers to a conference room toward the end due to technical errors that disrupted the live online feed. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Little public reaction to city’s bailout of school district this year, but big questions beyond loom

Only two people testify Monday about proposed $4.1M loan and taking over $3.9 in “shared costs.”

City leaders expected their proposed bailout for the Juneau School District might result in a long night of public testimony on Monday, and set up an overflow room at City Hall just in case, but only two people showed up to speak about the plan to provide a $4.1 million loan and taking over $3.9 million in “shared costs” of buildings.

However, there was some drama as one person testifying referred to a “Hunger Games” mentality among students following the Juneau Board of Education’s vote last week to consolidate high schools and middle schools. Also, city leaders — in addition to another meeting next Monday allowing comments that is expected to be followed by action on the proposal — are still facing decisions about helping the district next year and beyond, as well as what to do with city-owned buildings the district is vacating.

Three ordinances implementing the bailout were before the Juneau Assembly’s Committee of the Whole on Monday night, but only for the purposes of hearing public testimony. The meeting came days after the school board approved its consolidation plan during a seven-hour meeting that included four hours of testimony by dozens of students, parents and teachers — hence the expectation for possibly the same at City Hall.

The district is facing a $7.9 million deficit for the fiscal year ending June 30, which the city’s loan — at zero interest for a period of five years — and takeover of certain costs would cover. The shortfall is blamed on factors including accounting errors, declining enrollment and flat funding for the state for many years.

The much bigger problem for the district is a projected deficit of nearly $10 million for the coming year and similar deficits in future years. The third city ordinance provides $1.6 million in shared costs for the coming fiscal year, with Assembly members stating they want to see the district’s budget and restructuring plan for the coming year — due by March 15 — before considering more such funding.

The Alaska Legislature in recent days has passed a bill that boosts per-student funding, which would provide an additional $5.2 million to the district during the coming year. However, Gov. Mike Dunleavy has stated he has problems with the bill — without definitively declaring he will veto it — and he vetoed half of a similar increase the Legislature passed last year.

The city’s assistance for the current year isn’t tied to the district’s restructuring plan. But one of the two people who signed up to testify, Neil Stichert, a parent of a student at Thunder Mountain High School, said the Assembly should make financial support for the coming year dependent on the district providing “a comprehensive analysis of structural changes” that will result from the consolidation. He also expressed doubts that will be possible despite the efforts of district officials to provide such details.

“I do not believe this restructuring is ready by August without the tremendous impacts occurring to the student performance and morale in our community,” he said.

Stichert said the consolidation plan was made by board members under duress following a ”grueling” meeting, and “the public barely understands the tradeoffs with respect to the budget, staff, transportation, students activities, instruction, access to facilities, and teacher and student morale.”

“My sophomore at TM reported out to me today on the ‘Hunger Games’-style impacts this decision is already having on the student body,” he said. “Predictably, kids are classifying themselves on winning and losing sides. Rumors are flying on which teachers will displace their peers in a reduction in force and speculation is rattling around, but without the benefit of information or a viable plan with community support behind it.”

However, the only other person to testify was a student from TMHS, Nanibaa’ Frommherz — the daughter of Juneau Board of Education member Amber Frommherz — who simply noted she was active on sports teams, and “I would like to thank all of you guys for considering helping out the Juneau School District. And it means a lot to me.”

In light of the low public turnout at the meeting, Assembly member Christine Woll asked Frommherz if there is an effective way to get the word out to people who might be interested in testifying either at next week’s meeting of the committee or sending written comments beforehand.

“I hear a lot about the school board meetings from Instagram, from the TMHS and JD spirit pages, and I feel like that’s a really easy way to get the word out,” Frommherz replied.

The consolidation plan will put students in grades 9-12 at Juneau-Douglas High School: Yadaa.at Kalé, grades 7-8 and the HomeBRIDGE program at Thunder Mountain High School, and add sixth-graders to the current K-5 elementary school system. Alternative and optional programs will also be affected, with Yaaḵoosgé Daakahídi High School, Montessori Borealis and Juneau Community Charter School relocated to the building used by Dzantik’i Heeni Middle School. The Tlingit Culture, Language and Literacy program will remain at Harborview Elementary School.

The Juneau Board of Education is scheduled to further discuss its budget for the coming year, which implements the consolidation, during a special meeting at 4:30 p.m. Tuesday at JDHS. A protest calling for the district to keep two high schools open, possibly by placing students in grades 7-12 there, is scheduled at 3:45 p.m. Tuesday at the University of Alaska Technical Center across from JDHS.

A bulletin issued by the city Tuesday notes the school board meeting is an informational review of budget-related topics including enrollment projects and pupil-teacher ratios for coming school year.

“There are no action items on the agenda for Tuesday’s meeting, so there will be no votes taken,” the bulletin states. “In addition, as this is a special meeting, there is no opportunity for public testimony on non-action items.”

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

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