Juneau School District Board of Education had its work cut out for it.
The board took a long, hard look at its budget for fiscal year 2020 during Tuesday night’s four-hour board meeting.
“This is the hard work,” said Superintendent Bridget Weiss. “There isn’t anything on this list anymore that isn’t important.”
Board President Brian Holst said the reason the district is forced to make such difficult decisions is while school funding hasn’t been cut, it hasn’t risen at the same rate as inflation.
“We often refer to this funding scenario as flat funding,” Weiss said. “The base student allocation has remained the same. Our costs do not stay the same.”
The board voted to table taking action on the budget in order to make amendments to it. The budget will receive final approval at the March 26 meeting agenda.
Similar action was taken last year.
At the end of the night, the budget with total operating expenditures of $71,258,737 was similar to what had been outlined in previous meetings with the exception of two amendments that passed along 5-2 splits. Last year’s proposed budget was under $71 million, as reported in the Juneau Empire. FY 2018’s budget was $72 million, FY 2017’s $83.6 million and FY 2016’s $85.6 million.
One amendment would restore funding for post-secondary education preparedness program Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID) to $50,000. A previous version of the 2020 budget eliminated funding for the program.
Weiss said last year AVID was funded at about $66,000.
Board members Steve Whitney and Jeff Short voted against the amendment.
Prior to the vote on the amendment, Weiss and Ted Wilson, director of teaching and learning support, spoke favorably about AVID.
Whitney said he has seen no evidence that AVID is effective and has a positive effect.
Wilson said he has district-specific data he can share at a future meeting that demonstrates its impact.
The other amendment to the budget essentially swapped out one new full-time core subject high school teacher for an elementary integration specialist. This resulted in no net impact on the budget. The budget still calls for 1 1/2 new core subject high school teachers.
Weiss said the specialist would help elementary teachers integrate subjects so that, for example, a reading lesson could also contain elements of science or math.
“In part because we only have so many hours in a day,” Weiss said.
Short and Whitney also voted against that amendment to the budget.
During earlier discussions, Whitney said core teachers are teaching too many students per day — sometimes 160 or more — and he opposed anything that would result in fewer core teachers.
He said if more core teachers aren’t added, the board should strongly consider combining the district’s two high schools or reducing the variety of classes offered.
“The math doesn’t work out any other way,” Whitney said.
Weiss said her data were at odds with those figures. Later, Weiss said after reviewing numbers, some teachers who opt to teach an extra class do see about the number of students Whitney described, but they are the exception and other teachers have a workload of about 110-130 students per day.
“I think there could be some spot problems,” Weiss said. “Our core courses are, for the most part, are within reason, currently.”
Public comment on the district’s proposed budget primarily focused on special education funding and requests for the board to be more reactive Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s proposed budget. The proposed state budget includes future cuts to K-12 funding.
The board adopted a resolution toward the end of the meeting that opposed any proposed cuts to education funding. Board Vice President Dan DeBartolo abstained from voting.
Thunder Mountain High School music teacher Brian Van Kirk said the board could be doing more to explain what affect that could have on district employees.
“The thing that concerns me is the looming budget that the governor has proposed,” Van Kirk said. “I feel like there’s a little bit of not being transparent on what could be coming.”
Juneau Education Association President Laura Mulgrew said during her public comment that while the board and the educators union have a good working relationship, more support at events such as an upcoming rally would be appreciated.
“It would be really nice if the school board and the unions sit down together and made a plan on how we could go and address the Legislature, and how we can go and be advocates for our kids.” Mulgrew said.
The planned rally is a joint effort with Juneau Education Support Staff, and will be noon Saturday, April 13 at the Capitol.
Comments on special education draw ire
Comments previously made by Short regarding special education drew criticism from a couple members of the public before generating some charged discussion among the board.
Chris Siddon, husband of school board member Elizabeth Siddon and Site council member for Harborview Elementary, first shared budget recommendations from his committee before sharing some personal comments.
“I wanted everyone to be aware the site council meeting last week, Dr. Short’s comments on special education on March 4, while discussing the budget priorities, Dr. Short made a comment that was something to the effect that, if you need to steal money you should steal it from the bank and special education is the bank. There’s a long list of reasons I think this comment is not appropriate, especially from a member of the school board.”
Chris Siddon said as a parent of a child in special education he was concerned about Short’s comments.
Nona Dimond, a mother of a child with special education needs, also spoke about the importance of funding special education.
“My child is more than just a line item to be vetoed,” she said. “My child is not a drain on this district. My child is an asset to his school and his peers, as is every child regardless of whether they’re special needs.”
The topic resurfaced at the end of the night, when DeBartolo said it pains him to see his fellow board members chastised when he knows hard work is put in by each member in an effort to maximize education opportunities for all students.
“Some of those discussions, when our budgets are shrinking, are difficult to have,” DeBartolo said.
Elizabeth Siddon said in the past week she has heard from concerned staff and parents about Short’s comments and said Short has made past comments about special education that are disrespectful.
“Those are tough conversations to have but there are better ways to have them,” she said.
Short said his choice of words may have been regrettable, but the district spends more on special education by ratio than any other district in Alaska, which impacts the ways it is able to spend its other funds — possibly to the detriment of other students — and it’s important to find out why. He said if his broader point was interpreted as being against special education, that was the fault of listeners.
“I am not against special education,” Short said.
Holst intervened to say that the conversation could continue, but it would need to remain constructive.
Weiss said it is important to delve into the district’s spending on special education, but it is a tough topic to navigate and that should be a consideration.
“Emotions become high because we are supporting a very vulnerable part of the population,” she said.
• Contact reporter Ben Hohenstatt at (907)523-2243 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @BenHohenstatt.