School board holds firm on budget priorities

The crowd at Tuesday’s Juneau Board of Education meeting had one key topic in mind: cultural education.

The meeting started with a full room at the Thunder Mountain High School library, with many in attendance wearing uniforms of the Alaska Native Brotherhood and the Alaska Native Sisterhood, as well as others in traditional Tlingit clothes. The theme for the public comment portion of the meeting was a clear echo of the last school board meeting: advocacy for the Tlingit Culture, Language and Literacy program, and the need to maintain educators necessary to make it a success.

The current fiscal situation, which for the past several years has led to more and more budget cuts, has forced the school board to make some tough decisions when it comes to allocating funds.

When approaching the budget this year, the school board took a different approach by starting with the sum of mandatory expenses and basic operational expenses, which came out to be $60.1 million, the amount necessary to keep the doors for its schools open. After that, there were 69 add-ons that the school board had to rank in order of priority. How many of those add-ons will make it into the final budget depends on funding allocated from the Alaska Legislature, which is trying to close a $4 billion budget gap.

Items in the first bracket would get added back if the Legislature passes a Base Student Allocation of $5,880 per student, the current level. Items in the second level would get added back if the Legislature passes a BSA of $5,930. Items in the third bracket would be added back if the BSA exceeds that amount.

The TCLL program didn’t make the first list of necessities; TCLL support teachers were placed 19 out of 23 items on the first bracket of prioritized spending for Fiscal Year 2017. The cultural education paraeducators were in the second priority level of add-ons at number 24.

During the last meeting, over 20 people came out to advocate for the TCLL program, a turnout which repeated Tuesday night. Multiple times elders and leaders in the Alaska Native community spoke in favor of the the TCLL program.

“A zero-based budget is based on priorities,” said Richard Peterson, president of Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska. “I think I can speak on behalf of the near 7,000 tribal citizens here in Juneau … that our culture and our languages are being held at a lower priority than they should be. That’s why we’re here. We’re not here to argue for a program that’s already funded, but our concern is when you talk about the paraprofessionals that weren’t above that line, that weren’t received in the priority they should, then it gives the perception that you don’t support the TCLL program. … It’s going to be set up to fail without those paraprofessionals.”

Many elders came forward to speak about their experience with the school district when they were younger, and how they wished they could have had programs like TCLL to support and educate them about their heritage. They spoke about the discrimination they faced and then compared it to how young Alaska Native youth today are able to openly display their language and cultural heritage. President of the Alaska Native Brotherhood Marcelo Quinto spoke of the “pride in the culture” youth today express. To the school board, he said, “you have a large impact.”

Board members discussed the cultural paraeducators currently employed in the district and how they are stretched across schools, however, no further changes were made to their budget priorities, which the Board will submit to the Legislature.

At the three-hour mark of a four-hour meeting, members voted to fully fund middle school activities by using reserve funds.

• Contact Clara Miller at clara.miller@juneauempire.com or at 523-2243.

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