Amber Frommherz, a member of the Juneau Board of Education, expresses concerns about next year’s proposed budget during a special meeting Thursday night at Thunder Mountain High School. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Amber Frommherz, a member of the Juneau Board of Education, expresses concerns about next year’s proposed budget during a special meeting Thursday night at Thunder Mountain High School. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

School board votes 4-3 to reconsider consolidation plan merging high and middle schools

Motion allows amending plan next week, despite concern by some officials budget is also due then.

The Juneau Board of Education voted 4-3 on Thursday night to reconsider a previously approved consolidation plan that combines both of Juneau’s high schools as well as both local middle schools, despite concerns raised by some district officials a financial crisis plan meeting the state’s approval needs to be complete by next week.

A motion allowing an amendment to the consolidation plan to be considered by the board next week was proposed by Amber Frommherz near the end of a special board meeting Thursday night at Thunder Mountain High School. The purpose of the meeting was an initial review of a proposed budget for the coming fiscal year based on the already-approved consolidation plan, but numerous residents showed up to testify against the provisions of that plan — as has happened at meetings since it was adopted.

“The reason I brought forth this amendment was after the (extensive) public input of feeling not heard, feeling that there was an option out there to be considered, really for me it was about the process,” she said in an interview Friday. The intention isn’t “derailing our current momentum on the pending consolidation plan, but “what I am asking for is the board to consider, take one moment in our meetings next week, to consider a possible another alternative.”

The board is scheduled to next consider the consolidation plan and budget on Tuesday. Will Muldoon, the school board’s clerk, said by making the proposed change an amendment to the approved plan — rather than rescinding it — that will leave the existing plan in place if the amendment fails.

The district is facing a projected $9.7 million operating budget deficit next year, about half of which would be resolved through the existing consolidation plan. The proposed budget presented Thursday addresses the rest largely through layoffs and increasing class sizes.

Frommherz said one of the reasons the district is in a financial crisis is state funding has remained essentially flat for many years, and noted the Alaska Legislature has passed a funding increase this year that could erase much of next year’s projected deficit if Gov. Mike Dunleavy signs it. He has indicated he will veto the bill next week unless lawmakers send him additional legislation addressing his policy priorities.

The school board on Feb. 23 approved by a 5-2 vote a plan that consolidates students in grades 9-12 at Juneau-Douglas High School: Yadaa.at Kalé, grades 7-8 and the HomeBRIDGE program at Thunder Mountain High School, and adds sixth-graders to the current K-5 elementary school system. However, many parents and other residents have since advocated for an option keeping both high schools open for students in grades 7-12.

The motion passed by the board does not specify what type of amendment to the current consolidation plan will be considered, Frommherz said. However, discussion of her motion Thursday revolved around the presumption it would involve the grades 7-12 school model.

Frommherz, Will Muldoon, David Noon and Britteny Cioni-Haywood voted in favor of allowing an amendment to be considered next week. Board President Deedie Sorensen, Vice President Emil Mackey and Elizabeth Siddon voted against.

Noon and Cioni-Haywood, the newest members of the school after prevailing in last October’s municipal election, cast the dissenting votes against the consolidation plan in February. Both have continued to raise questions about the plan including possible impacts not fully evaluated due to the short deadline, the transparency of the board’s process as perceived by residents and if other options such as the 7-12 schools have been sufficiently considered.

Mackey, in an interview Friday, said it does not appear legally or practically possible to come up with a new restructuring plan that meets city and state deadlines. In addition to timing, Juneau Assembly members may also want to reconsider an assistance package that includes a zero-interest loan and taking over of some operational costs they approved Monday.

“If we change a plan then we’re going to have to create an entirely new budget in just a few days,” he said. “Present that to CBJ in order to be compliant with the legal requirements of balancing our budget, and having them restructure that loan if they choose to do so. Approve a (reduction-in-force) plan under whatever that new plan looks like. And deliver those before March 15.”

“That is pure fantasy,” he added.

Siddon, during Thursday’s meeting, also expressed skepticism, stating Frommherz — presumably working with district officials — would have to present the board with a new proposed budget to match whatever amended restructuring plan is proposed by Tuesday. That tight timeline, and prospect of trying to alter in days the plan the board has worked on for the past two months, led to some tense exchanges toward the end of the nearly five-hour meeting when Frommherz made her motion.

“If there’s information that needs to be considered that will save CBJ money in the long run that needs to be considered,” she said.

“But you’re going to have to provide that on Tuesday,” Siddon said.

“I understand that,” Frommherz replied.

“So you’re asking us, your colleagues, to trust a budget you developed by yourself between now and Tuesday, versus the budget developed by our superintendent and director of administrative services?” Siddon asked.

Frommherz reiterated her position that district members should hear additional information that may be beneficial before making such a large policy decision. Siddon said that process has already happened.

“We made the hard decision,” she said. “I know there are people not happy about it. There are going to be more people unhappy if we change direction right now.”

Accusations of bad faith also arose between audience and board members during the evening.

Some residents declared the board is willfully is overlooking and/or withholding information that might make the 7-12 plan more favorable in comparison to the adopted version — and continued to suggest the board may have acted illegally by passing the plan a short time after rejecting a virtually identical one.

Mackey, near the end of the evening, said it appears the opposition to the adopted plan is from a “small minority” of vocal residents who have “spread intentional misinformation in order to try to get what they want.”

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

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