Students and staff play a kickball game on the field between the Marie Drake Building and Juneau-Douglas High School: Yadaa.at Kalé on Friday afternoon. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Students and staff play a kickball game on the field between the Marie Drake Building and Juneau-Douglas High School: Yadaa.at Kalé on Friday afternoon. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

School district leaders debate biggest needs for extra $5.2M approved by Legislature, in hope governor won’t veto it

Staff for special education and gifted students, homeschooling, paying off city loan high on list.

Juneau School District leaders are beginning to talk about how to spend an extra $5.2 million — or nearly 8% — in the operating budget for the coming year as hopes grow that an increase in state education funding passed by the Alaska Legislature will survive Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s veto pen.

But so far it’s not an entirely happy discussion as there’s disagreement over what should get first priority in reversing the large-scale cuts the Juneau Board of Education made to close a projected $9.7 million deficit for the fiscal year that begins July 1. In addition to the consolidation of schools already well underway that can’t practically be reversed, the $68 million operating budget calls for laying off 12% of the staff that were in place as of earlier this year.

One general area of agreement among local leaders about top needs for the additional funds are boosting various categories of specialized student programs including homeschooling, special education and gifted students. But which of those programs deserve first consideration and the type of support to provide were among the areas of disagreement.

A list with priorities was presented by Superintendent Frank Hauser during a school board meeting Friday, which was the continuation of a meeting that started Tuesday and was adjourned after midnight Wednesday. The list that includes about $3.7 million for specific items was drafted during recent meetings with various school administrators, Hauser said.

“This is just an idea of a list with some costings as well, and it would be something that we’d want to get some more information on and feedback from the board,” he said. “And so we tried to pull together what the board had talked about in the past during the budgeting process as well as some of the needs that were identified during those meetings with principals, assistant principals, directors and supervisors.”

While about $1.5 million would remain if the district receives the full increase approved by the Legislature, board member Elizabeth Siddon said using the majority of that to immediately repay a $1 million loan the City and Borough of Juneau is providing to help cover a shortfall for the current fiscal year would appear to be a foremost priority.

The extra $5.2 million is an estimate based on a one-time $680 increase in the $5,960 Base Student Allocation the Legislature included in the budget for the coming fiscal year. An identical increase was approved last year, but Gov. Mike Dunleavy used his line-item veto to reduce the amount by half.

As a result of the veto — and the Legislature’s failure earlier this year to override it — Juneau district officials drafted next year’s budget on the assumption there would be no increase in the per-student formula. Dunleavy toward the end of the legislative session indicated he is open to keeping the entire increase, giving school officials in Juneau hope they could budget accordingly.

The priorities on Hauser’s list start with extra staffing for the HomeBRIDGE program (1.2 full-time equivalent positions, giving the program three full-time actual employees). The homeschooling program has seen increased participation in recent years while district enrollment overall is declining and some parents have stated they believe there will be more interest in the program with the consolidation of middle school and high school students into one school each.

Second on the priority list is five FTEs to reduce the pupil-teacher ratio wherever the need is greatest at elementary and secondary schools. Currently in next year’s budget the pupil-teacher ratio will increase to 30 for all grade levels except K-3, where it is set at 26. The current ratios are 23.5 for K-3 students, 26 for grades 4-6, 25 for grades 7-8 and 26 for grades 9-12.

Third on the list is seven FTEs for paraprofessionals to help students in Individualized Educational Program (IEPs), the largest impact of which would add two more part-time employees to the six paraeductors in each of the district’s elementary schools. Hauser said the additional paraeducators could also help with duties such as staffing during recess and when students are boarding buses after school.

The fourth item onthe list provides enough funding to ensure all seven district schools have a full-time office assistant rather than a part-time position.

But an entirely different top priority was cited by Siddon, who said she has “real concern about our support of special education as it’s being planned out for next year,” noting adding special education paraeductors ranks eighth on the priority list. Among her disagreements is using paraprofessionals for tasks beyond working with individual students such as recess duty.

“One of the strengths of paraeducators is their familiarity with our most vulnerable students,” she said.

Also, Siddon said, there’s already a shortage of special education instructors and “we are putting ourselves in a really vulnerable position” during the coming year.

“I also get the sense that we’re moving away from special education teachers interacting with the academic needs of our IEP students,” she said. “And it is being delegated to paraprofessionals in a way that is neither probably legal nor in the best interest of our students, and there is no time allocated for the collaboration of a special education teacher with a paraprofessional. They’re just being sent in and told to implement educational materials. So this plan does nothing for the concerns I have about how we’re going to operate the special education program next year.”

Similar concerns were expressed by board members David Noon, Amber Frommherz and Will Muldoon.

“I had a bunch of site council meetings last week and this came up at every single one of them,” Muldoon said.

Helping gifted students by adding back two full-time positions for the Talent Enrichment Development (TED) program —which ranks sixth on the list presented by Hauser — was cited as a top priority by school board President Deedie Sorensen.

“I think that having the opportunity to particularly supplement staff in mathematics for elementary (and) intermediate students is extremely important,” she said.

Another concern of Siddon’s was sixth-grade students, who will be relocated from middle school to elementary schools during the coming year. She said many of those students are set to be in classes with both fifth- and sixth-graders, but would prefer all elementary schools have “straight sixth grades for next year.”

Hauser, responding to the concerns voiced, said the nine items on the list ranked as priorities — and which total more than $3 million of the $5.2 million increase passed by lawmakers — are considered important. The list also contains some unranked items such as one additonal employee each for informaton technology, custodial, maintance and human resources.

But he said it’s also important for school board members to think about the longer-term implications of adding back staff and programs with the funds using one-time funds that may not be available in future years.

Also, Hauser said, the district has struggled to fill paraeducator positions, so simply authorizing more in the budget won’t necessarily solve the problem and is a reason other staffing areas have been targeted as priorities.

“The thought behind this was are there potentially future JSD staff members that would be interested in coming into a position, becoming familiar with the Juneau School District, being able to provide those supports in other areas that would free up paraeductors to focus,” he said.

Hauser said some of those new staff might eventually also be interested in transitioning into paraeductor or other higher-paid positions of need, fulfilling a “recruitment and retention” goal that’s also an item on the priority list.

A different concern about caution when making plans for the extra funding was brought up by board member Britteny Cioni-Haywood, who noted the amount is based on student enrollment during the coming year — which isn’t a known certainty yet.

“I think that we are going to take a hit in enrollment this coming year and so I would be really concerned about that,” she said.

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

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