Board of Education members are debating the best way to spend operating funds, allocate grant money and use federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Funds for the 2021-22 school year. Personnel changes are expected at multiple schools ahead of that school year, including principal changes at Auke Bay and Harborview elementary schools. (Ben Hohenstatt / Juneau Empire File)

Board of Education members are debating the best way to spend operating funds, allocate grant money and use federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Funds for the 2021-22 school year. Personnel changes are expected at multiple schools ahead of that school year, including principal changes at Auke Bay and Harborview elementary schools. (Ben Hohenstatt / Juneau Empire File)

Looking ahead: Board of education mulls budget for next school year

Enrollment uncertainty complicates budget process for Juneau School District.

On the cusp of the one-year anniversary of the suspension of full-time, in-person learning due to COVID-19, the board of education gathered via Zoom Tuesday evening to discuss the district’s fiscal year 2021-2022 budget.

“Tonight is the first of two nights to finalize the budget,” said Superintendent Bridget Weiss. “We are looking at every angle to be as prudent and efficient as we can.”

The budget discussion included the best way to spend operating funds, allocate grant money and use federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Funds, which were provided as part of last year’s CARES Act.

Weiss said the proposed budget is the culmination of a months-long process that started in January and included discussions with school-based site councils, teachers, community members, board members and school leaders.

“This is a process that includes lots and lots of discussion,” Weiss said.

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Enrollment-related uncertainty

City and state funding levels are based on enrollment, so estimating the correct enrollment number for the coming school year is a critical part of the budget-making process. While always tricky, Weiss told the board that this cycle includes extra wrinkles because of pandemic-induced enrollment drops.

“We know that enrollment is one of the discussions we continue to have,” Weiss told the board. “It’s one trigger for predicting revenue. It’s always an art. It’s even more difficult this year to make predictions. We are especially vulnerable as we look at that this year.”

Each spring, schools estimate their likely fall enrollment. However, an official enrollment number is not available until October, when the official student census is conducted.

The extended break from full-time, in-person learning has meant enrollment changes for the district, with about 410 students moving to the district-supported HomeBRIDGE program rather than the 35 students the program typically serves. Another 500 students have left the district for other home school programs, school officials told the Empire in February. However, surveys of the families of former students indicate that many plan to return in the fall.

Choosing the correct projected enrollment number generated robust conversation at the meeting between board members who prefer a more conservative approach and those who expect a fuller bounceback.

According to documents shared before the meeting, the proposed budget assumes that the school will resume in August with in-person learning. It assumes that 4,331 students will be enrolled when it restarts, with 150 of those students enrolled in HomeBRIDGE. This assumption represents an increase of 309 students from October 2020. However, it is a decrease of 280 students from October 2019.

David Means, former director of administrative services who is helping with this year’s budget process, told the board that for every student enrolled above the projected count, the school seeks $900 from the City and Borough of Juneau and $3,900 from the state.

Means said that means being off by 100 students would entail a swing of $480,000.

“I think we are too pessimistic in the enrollment assumptions,” said board member Brian Holst. “If we get this wrong by a lot, it’s a real burden on the city. It hurts us if there are more students in October, and the amount of adjustment they will have to make is very substantial. We should consider why we are choosing to believe that so many students will not return to our school.”

Board member Emil Mackey suggested that some families have discovered that distance learning suits their needs.

“Many people have told me that their taste of distance education has been very, very positive, and they are sticking with it. I think distance learning has been successful for higher-end students, and I think those will stay out of the district. That concerns me. I’ve heard a lot of chatter about people staying out, and I urge caution,” he said.

Mackey said that estimating too high a number of students could lead the district to count on revenue that won’t materialize with a smaller enrollment.

“I’m concerned we will spend every dime, and that would put us on a cliff for next year,” Mackey said.

Weiss said a worst-case scenario would involve the district over-extending itself on contracts, explaining the decision to use a more conservative enrollment number.

The board also discussed amendments to the transportation and food service budgets, as district officials expect both to produce shortfalls. They also considered ways to target extra money at high school level activities.

The school board is exptected to adopt the final budget on March 18.

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Upcoming changes

When school resumes next fall, new principals will be at the helm at Harborview Elementary School and Auke Bay Elementary School, as both principals are leaving their posts when the current school year ends. In addition, the district is hiring a student services director.

Weiss said that the interview process will begin soon and that public participation will be a part of the selection process. She expects more information to be available in the next week.

Contact reporter Dana Zigmund at dana.zigmund@juneauempire.com or 907-308-4891.

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