Cheer teams for Thunder Mountain High School and Juneau-Douglas High School: Yadaa.at Kalé perform a joint routine between quarters of a Feb. 24 game between the girls’ basketball teams of both schools. It was possibly the final such local matchup, with all high school students scheduled to be consolidated into JDHS starting during the next school year. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire file photo)

Cheer teams for Thunder Mountain High School and Juneau-Douglas High School: Yadaa.at Kalé perform a joint routine between quarters of a Feb. 24 game between the girls’ basketball teams of both schools. It was possibly the final such local matchup, with all high school students scheduled to be consolidated into JDHS starting during the next school year. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire file photo)

State OKs school district’s consolidation plan; closed schools cannot reopen for at least seven years

Plans from color-coded moving boxes to adjusting bus routes well underway, district officials say.

The Juneau School District’s consolidation plan has been officially approved by the state and, while some parents are still hoping to prevent the plan, district leaders are well into implementing the multitude of fine details necessary to carry out the realignment that by law will not allow closed schools to reopen for at least seven years.

Consolidation details ranging from the color of labels on moving boxes identifying their destination buildings to making adjustments in starting times for some grades due to shifting bus routes were discussed during a Juneau Board of Education meeting Tuesday night. Some of the details added to what’s already been a contentious debate, including questions about whether extra work expectations are being placed on teachers and others — including students — in the packing, cleaning and moving process.

Final authorization for the consolidation that will place all students in grades 9-12 at Juneau Douglas High School: Yadaa.at Kalé, and all students in grades 7-8 and the HomeBRIDGE program at what’s currently Thunder Mountain High School, was provided in an April 4 letter by Deena Bishop, commissioner of the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development (DEED). The consolidation will result in the renaming of Thunder Mountain and closure of Juneau’s two middle schools (one of which will be used for other education programs), and the letter specifies the legal implications of taking such action.

“It is important to note, by utilizing the consolidation language under (state law), the district acknowledges it may not submit a request to the department to reopen Thunder Mountain High School, Floyd Dryden Middle School, or Dzantik’i Heeni Middle School until seven years or more have passed since the date of closure,” Bishop wrote. “The district will also be required to provide evidence that Juneau-Douglas High School and the new Thunder Mountain Middle School are over capacity.”

A massive financial crisis triggered the consolidation, with the district facing a nearly $10 million deficit for the fiscal year starting July 1 and projections of ongoing sizeable shortfalls due largely to flat state funding and declining enrollment. The district also had to resolve a deficit for the current year initially projected in January at $9.5 million — and later revised downward — due largely to a faulty budget framework that contained flaws cited in previous years’ audits and large-scale accounting errors for the current year.

The education department’s approval of the consolidation was necessary because state law requires school districts’ budgets to balance by the end of each fiscal year, or face financial penalties equaling the amount of shortfall. DEED agreed to give the Juneau School District a five-year period to balance its books without penalty under a state-approved plan.

Part of the plan includes a zero-interest loan from the City and Borough of Juneau that must be repaid within five years, as well as the city taking over millions of dollars in so-called “shared costs” of buildings used by both the municipality and district for non-instructional purposes such as cultural and recreational activities. The district’s budget for the coming year that was approved by the board last month also lays off about 12% of the district’s employees.

Actions and policies now in the works to implement the consolidation were presented by Superintendent Frank Hauser and other district administrators during Tuesday’s meeting.

“We’ve already started delivering boxes and packaging material,” Hauser said. “The transition leadership team as well as other groups are coordinating a streamlined process for creating moving labels and coordinating color coding so we can have quickly identified boxes of the destination and the items that are going to be moved. Curriculum teams are meeting to discuss subject-specific moving considerations — anything from music to PE to music.”

The district is currently anticipating more than 50 district employees will help with the transition, Hauser said.

“This does not take into consideration any temporary summer hires, volunteers, and students and sports team helpers who have already inquired about helping during the transition process,” he said.

Teachers have also been told in recent weeks about various aspects of relocation, including the need to move themselves items brought in such as couches or other non-official district equipment and materials.

And we do know that the more the move will be coordinated in a very specific sequence to allow for the freeing up of space and one school to accommodate the boxes, and everything that’s moving from another. Hauser said the intent is moving by teachers will not occur during time they normally would provide or prepare for instruction.

Hauser’s presentation got a quick and seemingly unfavorable reaction from some district employees and other people observing the livestream of the meeting.

“My messages are blowing up right now with teachers and staff around the district asking for some clarification,” said David Noon, one of two school board members newly elected last fall, when the superintendent finished his overview. “Are we seriously having children do labor that is potentially just labor? That was that one of the things that was suggested. And are we asking teachers to use their prep time for packing and moving, because that could be a contract violation as well?

Hauser said the relocation plans aren’t putting unrealistic demands on teachers or forcing students to do manual labor.

“Teachers will absolutely have their prep time, we’re not asking them to pack during their prep time,” he said. “There are summer positions that are put out there. Students will sometimes volunteer, sports teams will come in and volunteer and help out. Like I said, we’ve been approached by some people saying ‘Hey, if you need any help let us know.”

The move will allow the district to do some long-overdue cleanup and disposal work, including consulting with city officials about disposing of hazardous materials that have long been in storage such as science lab chemicals, Hauser said.

“It’s been clear that there has been some need to dispose of chemicals for a number of years,” he said. “We’ve just not been through some of the conversations, it’s just not happened yet. This is an opportunity for us to plan that out.”

Among the many proposed policy changes resulting from the consolidation is changing some school starting times since many students will be bused to different locations.

“The consolidation of students, specifically the consolidation of seventh- and eighth-grade students to Thunder Mountain, will result in many students traveling further to and from schools each day,” Kristin Bartlett, the district’s chief of staff, told the board. “In order to transport students from all areas of the district to a single middle and single high school on time each day, a slight change in schedule is needed to provide additional time in between the elementary and middle school start times.”

Elementary schools would start at 7:50 a.m. (10 minutes earlier than now), middle school at 8:35 a.m. (five minutes later) and high school at 9:15 a.m. (no change) under the proposal presented by Bartlett.

Opposition to that proposal was voiced during the meeting by Julie Bednarski, a parent who said getting her children to different schools earlier would be disruptive because of the earlier starting time and larger time gap between grades. It was among many aspects of the consolidation that remain under heavy scrutiny — along with people still seeking to prevent the consolidation itself.

While the school board and state have approved the consolidation, the budget implementing it must still be approved by the Juneau Assembly as part of its annual process that must be completed by June 15. A plea for the district to thus nullify the consolidation was made Tuesday by Jenny Thomas, a member of a committee circulating a petition to recall school board President Deedie Sorensen and Vice President Emil Mackey, based on “failure to understand the FY24 budget and accounting errors resulting in $7.9M deficit and taxpayer loan from CBJ.”

“If you choose to go forward with your consolidation model I hope you factor into the unknown cost that is going to create because there’s going to be a lot of them,” she said. “The harm you’re going to do to the entire student population. You’re affecting every single student in the school district and you don’t have to. If cuts need to be made close the district office (or) close something that is less effective to all of your students. You guys have lost the trust of the community. It’s time that you earn that back and it should be your top priority. It’s time to actually make a hard decision and say that the budget and the consolidation crisis was a big mistake.”

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

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