Local Alaska Native residents wanted to have more than words with local leaders about the Juneau School District’s budget crisis, which has been the subject of discussion at near-daily public meetings the past couple of weeks.
So nearly the entire first hour of a “community conversation” Thursday featured traditional dances by students accompanied by narratives about lessons learned from ancestors over thousands of years. Some of the students later lined up in front of the gathering at Elizabeth Peratrovich Hall to describe their favorite lessons from those elders passed on through the district’s Tlingit Culture, Language and Literacy (TCLL) Program.
“It’s important to learn our language,” said Awasti Lizzie George-Frank. “Our ancestors learned how to speak Lingít and that’s how they survived. Knowing how to speak Lingít helps me to remember my ancestors. Learning my language teaches me my history. I know how I fit into the world because I learned my history and my language.”
One of her peers, Layla Drummond, told the audience of officials, teachers and parents “I like TCLL because we get to learn our Lingít language, and we can sing and dance, and I feel like I belong at TCLL. Also, I am able to bead my own regalia and we get to eat our traditional foods.”
The message from presenters of all ages was leaders need to think beyond dollars when making decisions that may drastically reshape local education. But during the evening everyone was also forced to confront the same dilemma as city and school district officials: how to erase a projected $7.9 million deficit during the next few months and take actions to prevent similar deficits during the coming years.
District officials have said there appears to be no viable solutions other than drastic ones — including five different proposals for closing and consolidating schools being considered — especially with student enrollment in a long-term decline and state funding for education remaining mostly flat for the past decade. The deficit represents more than 10% of the district’s operating budget and similar shortfalls are possible in future years without ongoing measures to balance the books.
“The realities are the district can’t just cut administration to address this deficit,” said Superintendent Frank Hauser, echoing remarks he has given at previous meetings involving the budget crisis. “That’s not mathematically possible. The district spends nearly 90% of its budget on salaries and benefits. By far the largest slice of that goes to teachers, parent educators, counselors and staff that are working directly with the students. It is impossible for the district to address this situation without impacting the largest expenditure.”
“There’s a stark choice right now. Keeping all of the buildings going with fewer and fewer students and skeleton crews, or reimagining educational delivery in the district. Restructuring and reorganizing with building closures will be a way to maintain opportunities for students and ensure Juneau’s schools can remain vibrant, full, energetic learning centers into the future.”
Some immediate help may come from the Juneau Assembly, whose members on Wednesday approved drafting ordinances that would have the municipal government take over about $3.9 million in “shared costs” this year and provide the district with a $4 million zero-interest loan. Some Assembly members expressed anger at being put in such a situation, but Tlingit and Haida President Richard Chalyee Éesh Peterson told the audience at Thursday’s meeting such feelings aren’t useful in seeking solutions to the crisis.
“The blame game really isn’t very productive,” he said. “I think we need to understand what got us to this situation. And we want to hear those things. But a lot of that water has already passed under the bridge. So really it’s about how do we move this forward so that our kiddos have the best opportunities, the best education. And we definitely don’t want to lose programs. We don’t want to lose those opportunities. But we have to be realistic about where we’re at.”
Much like other recent meetings with parents, teachers and students, comments focused far more on what they want to keep rather than what they are willing to give up. However, on this occasion Hauser took a different approach than to some earlier meetings by responding to questions and concerns as they were raised.
“In the five proposals there’s no mention anywhere of any optional program,” said Naakil.aan Hans Chester, a teacher with the TCLL program, who offered the narratives about and between the dances performed by students. “We’ve been asking where’s TCLL? Where’s Montessori? Where’s the charter school? We’re not just thinking about ourselves. We’re wondering what’s happening to every one of us.”
“We need transparency, we need to be told what you all know because we know there are things that you all are talking about, but we need to know that too. The things that are being decided have an effect on us. Maybe you don’t realize it, but we feel it, these kids feel it, they wonder what’s going to happen. And when we have to tell them we’re not too sure it’s not very comforting.”
Hauser, offering an apology and declaring he did not intend to cause concerns about the future of the TCLL program, said one option is moving alternative programs such TCLL and Yaaḵoosgé Daakahídi High School to one of Juneau’s two current middle schools. Under such a plan, the two middle schools would be consolidated into one of Juneau’s two high schools, with the high schools also consolidated into a single location.
Among the students at Thursday’s meeting who would be affected by such a plan Aster Davis, an 11th-grade student at YDHS, who told Hauser that she would be fine relocating the school from the Marie Drake Building because it “has issues,” but she’s also concerned about limitations of a new space if they’re sharing it with other programs.
“I’d rather appreciate if you share us with another school for it to be a smaller school because that’s what really helps our program the most without it being overloaded,” she said.
Hauser said the hope is a new building would have more space for the programs that use them compared to now, and “the goal and the hope is we would be able to apply some space that is specifically for that school, or for that program.
Natalia Hinchman, a school district employee for nearly nine years, expressed concern about how consolidating schools might affect students with special needs such as those with attention deficit disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
“How is that going to affect them with the overcrowding that you’ll probably experience when you combine all of these classes?” she asked.
Hauser said federal law requires support for all such students and is also included in the district’s official policy.
Some aspects of the consolidation proposals, including moving sixth-grade students to elementary schools so there are fewer middle school students who could subsequently be placed in one school, got supportive comments from Mary Marks, a tribal citizen of Central Council and delegate for the Juneau Community Council. But she said she’s concerned about the proposal to consolidate the high schools because it will reduce elective courses and other opportunities for students.
Also, like many parents and students speaking at previous meetings, she said the high school students should not be consolidated at Juneau-Douglas High School: Yadaa.at Kalé — which is part of some alternatives under consideration — due to issues such as lack of parking for students who drive.
“I’m thinking JDHS be used as a middle school just because the layout of the land has more opportunities,” she said. “There’s more than upstairs-downstairs — we do have the ground level. So there’s opportunity there to have that cohesiveness for our middle school. And should the board decide to consolidate the high schools I would think it would be to have to be Thunder Mountain, not just because of the layout of the land there, but parking spaces.”
The Juneau Board of Education is scheduled to evaluate the consolidation options and other matters related to the financial crisis during a work session at 4:30 p.m. Tuesday at the JDHS library, which will be followed by the board’s regular meeting at 6 p.m.
• Contact Mark Sabbatini at email@example.com or (907) 957-2306.