School board members said Monday that the challenges facing the Juneau School District are “unprecedented,” and asked for continued support from the CBJ Assembly. (Alex McCarthy | Juneau Empire)

School board members said Monday that the challenges facing the Juneau School District are “unprecedented,” and asked for continued support from the CBJ Assembly. (Alex McCarthy | Juneau Empire)

School board details ‘unprecedented’ challenges, financial uncertainty

Monday night’s joint meeting with the Juneau School District Board of Education and the City and Borough of Juneau Assembly centered around “unprecedented” challenges facing local schools and financial uncertainty for both parties involved.

In the past, the Assembly has wholeheartedly supported the Board of Education, routinely giving as much funding as possible, and board president Brian Holst said early on in the meeting that the board members “sincerely appreciate” the dedication to education funding.

Board member Sean O’Brien, a lifelong resident and longtime board member, said the financial situation now is dire, and the challenges facing students are “unprecedented.” Those concerns include students not being prepared enough for kindergarten, a need for more counselors and a rise in drug use.

“I feel like it’s close to a breaking point,” O’Brien said at the meeting. “It’s amazing, it’s phenomenal that we’re doing as well as we are. We are Band-Aiding a lot of things right now. We’re Band-Aiding facilities, we’re Band-Aiding roofs, we’re Band-Aiding all kinds of things that are just, a Band-Aid and a piece of gum holding it together, that’s where we’re at.”

The state of Alaska sets a certain minimum and maximum amount a local government can give its schools. That funding cap varies based on a number of factors in a school district. The CBJ Assembly has long made it a priority to fund its schools all the way up to the cap.

Multiple Assembly members expressed concerns Monday about that funding, including Debbie White.

“This is a really hard time for us to answer the extra (financial) ask and we do have a level of uncertainty, because we’re in an age of uncertainty ourselves,” White said. “As much as any one of us would love to tell you that we could promise you something, right now is probably not a good time for that.”

Assembly member Beth Weldon was also concerned, as the school board members painted a bleak picture of the state of the schools yet also wanted to make a major dedication to pre-kindergarten education.

Holst assured Weldon that the board isn’t asking to take money away from high school education and facility costs right now, but merely wanted to bring the importance of early education to the board’s attention. As board member Josh Keaton detailed at the meeting, a recent study from the Alaska Department of Education &Early Development revealed that just 38.5 percent of Juneau kindergarteners are prepared upon entering the grade.

The study, prepared Feb. 7, takes 13 categories into account, including working well with others, possessing strong organization skills, understanding the alphabet and more. The study deemed that students who were adept in 11 of the 13 categories were ready for kindergarten, and just 38.5 percent of the 351 Juneau kindergarteners qualified.

A handout to the board members stated that pre-kindergarten education was the top “legislative priority” for 2017. The handout claimed that studies have shown that every $1 spent on early childhood education saved $8 down the line that would be spent helping individual students catch up and learn basic skills later on.

Though the financial situation doesn’t allow for funds to be shifted dramatically toward early childhood education at the moment, the school board members hope that early education funding will become a priority at the state level.

The challenges facing the board in the more immediate future, however, were the main focus of the meeting. Board member Dan DeBartolo kept his statement about the budget short and simple. Knowing that state funding is still up in the air, he made it clear that the board will once again need the Assembly.

“We are now obviously facing a time that’s not a mystery to anyone,” DeBartolo said. “At this particular moment, it would be helpful for us to have the Assembly be our rock, because we know that the Legislature is going back and forth on both sides. We’re unsure what’s going to happen there as far as education is concerned, and that uncertainty is difficult.”


• Contact reporter Alex McCarthy at 523-2271 or alex.mccarthy@juneauempire.com.


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