Juneau Board of Education President Deedie Sorensen (left) and Vice President Emil Mackey, holding his son Emil Mackey IV, listen to discussion about next year’s budget for the school district during a meeting March 14 at Juneau-Douglas High School: Yadaa.at Kalé. Both are the targets of recall petitions expected to begin circulating this week. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Juneau Board of Education President Deedie Sorensen (left) and Vice President Emil Mackey, holding his son Emil Mackey IV, listen to discussion about next year’s budget for the school district during a meeting March 14 at Juneau-Douglas High School: Yadaa.at Kalé. Both are the targets of recall petitions expected to begin circulating this week. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Recall effort targets school board president, vice president due to district’s budget crisis

Deedie Sorensen, Emil Mackey failed to act on previous concerns about fiscal woes, petitioners say.

Petitions to recall the top two members of the Juneau Board of Education due to the school district’s budget crisis this year are likely to begin circulating this week after being certified by the municipal clerk’s office.

Board President Deedie Sorensen and Vice President Emil Mackey are each targeted in separate petitions for “failure to understand the FY24 budget and accounting errors resulting in $7.9M deficit and taxpayer loan from CBJ,” according to a letter issued Thursday by Beth McEwen, municipal clerk for the City and Borough of Juneau.

The committee of 11 petitioners had sought to recall both members for a multitude of reasons — many involving the district’s consolidation plan taking effect for the next school year — but only one was deemed legally valid by City Attorney Robert Palmer.

The seven-member school board last spring voted unanimously for the budget for the current fiscal year ending June 30. A shortfall initially reported as $9.5 million was uncovered in December and January that was attributed largely to accounting errors by administrative staff.

The other five members of the board that voted for the budget — and two new members elected last October to replace two members who departed — are not targets of the recall effort. The existing board unanimously approved a modified budget for this year that relies on a $4 million interest-free loan from the city, which is also taking over about $3.9 million in “shared services” costs of facilities used by both the municipality and district for non-instructional purposes.

Jenny Thomas, listed as the contact for the petitioners’ committee, said Monday that Sorensen and Mackey are targeted because “for a long period of time they’ve made mentions in comments that they were aware of the budget crisis…and they’ve made no attempts to do anything about it.” Thomas also cited their actions involving the consolidation plan, even though legally it isn’t part of the recall.

“(This is) to hold them accountable for their prior actions and how they’ve handled this whole thing,” said Thomas, who has two children attending Thunder Mountain High School, which will be converted to a middle school next year as all students in grades 9-12 will be consolidated into Juneau-Douglas High School: Yadaa.at Kalé.

Thomas also started an online petition earlier this year advocating for keeping two local high schools by having JDHS and TMHS provide instruction to students in grades 7-12. That proposal and an “8-12” plan at both schools were rejected by the board in mid-March.

Sorensen and Mackey both said Monday the recall petitions as approved feel misguided in scope and in singling them out among the board members.

“I feel targeted,” Sorensen said. “I don’t feel like this is really about the FY24 budget. I feel like particularly the names (of sponsors) that are on that petition are all about being opposed to the consolidation of the high schools.”

The consolidation plan was approved by a 5-2 vote in late February during a meeting where some in the audience — including people involved with the recall — alleged board members acted illegally by approving the plan a short time after rejecting a nearly identical one at the same meeting (Palmer told members at the time the vote was permissible). There have also been angry comments by residents and board members since the financial crisis was uncovered, including accusations by both of providing inaccurate or misleading information.

“The people that are pursuing this are people in pain and people in shock,” Mackey said. “And their anger and being in this situation is justified. I just disagree with them going after the people who have been trying to avoid this for the last three years.”

Among the other grounds petitioners cited in seeking the recalls that were rejected, according to Palmer:

• “Failure to communicate with stakeholders, creating an avoidable crisis, and rushing to adopt a polarizing consolidation model while refusing to factor in significant negative community impacts.”

• “Failure to heed 2017 study warning of declining enrollment and need to consolidate.”

• “Failure to instruct Superintendent to be transparent about looming debt crisis.”

• “Refusal to incorporate community input and testimony (from March 12, 2024).”

• “Permitting Mackey to intimidate/demean a fellow board member at the (March 7) board meeting, then attacking and degrading community members.”

• Sorensen “publishing an Opinion News article (March 9) undercutting a board member’s ‘approved’ motion to present new information to the community.”

Sorensen and Mackey were both elected to three-year terms in 2019 and reelected in 2022, and therefore are not up for election again until next year.

For a recall election to occur a total of 2,359 signatures — 25% of the total votes cast in the most recent regular municipal election — need to be collected and validated, according to McEwen’s letter. The criteria applies for both board members and the question of recalling them would appear separately on ballots if approved.

”We anticipate petition booklets being ready for you next week no earlier than Wednesday, April 10,” she wrote.

The vote can occur either in a special election or the next regular municipal election scheduled Oct. 1, depending on when signatures are submitted and verified. McEwen, in response to questions from the Empire, said a special election would cost about $105,000, and the soonest it could likely be scheduled is between June and August if the petitioners obtain the required signatures “a lot sooner” than their initial 60-day window to collect them.

Sorensen and Mackey have previously made statements before the budget crisis was revealed about the district facing a risky financial future, and both revisited those comments during meetings this year as officials sought to resolve the situation.

“The board has been, I guess, optimistic — not wildly optimistic — but certainly not willing to acknowledge the downward trend in our student population,” Sorensen said during a Jan. 9 board meeting where the full scope of the crisis was first presented. “And I think part of that is that, just like everyone else in town, we don’t want to acknowledge that Juneau is shrinking.”

Mackey, speaking in favor of the consolidation plan at meetings, noted he has backed such proposals in recent years because he considers such movement inevitable due to the district’s long-term and significant drop in enrollment.

However, both said they voted last year for a budget that appeared to be balanced based on information provided by the district’s administrative and financial staff. When an audit revealed problems last fall — the second straight year significant shortcomings were detailed — board members took action. Administrative Services Director Cassee Olin — later singled out by board members as providing faulty information — resigned Dec. 1 and an outside expert brought in for a detailed review.

“While people keep acting as though maybe we should have hired someone to do a deep dive into our budget, that’s exactly what we did,” Sorensen said. “We gave the superintendent in, I believe it was November, the authority to find someone who could basically forensically crawl through our budget after the audit and figure out what was going on.”

Thomas said the problems, which built up over a period of years, should have been detected by the board’s leaders before the situation reached a crisis state.

“It’s kind of their job to be checking in,” she said. “If you read what their duties are they should be doing periodic checks.”

Both school board members said they will make public efforts to fight the recall efforts.

“I’d love to have a debate about how this process went,” Mackey said. “Because frankly I feel like there’s been a lot of misinformation and some direct dishonesty about what has happened, this budgetary process and what led up to it. And I would love to have a public debate with them where they can ask me any question they want. And I will answer honestly. And maybe we can put this thing behind us.”

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

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