Former Juneau Board of Education member Jeffrey Short. (Michael Penn / Juneau Empire file photo)

Former Juneau Board of Education member Jeffrey Short. (Michael Penn / Juneau Empire file photo)

My Turn: Frustration of school board recall supporters understandable, but if successful will do great harm

Whenever a crisis befalls a public institution, the first thing that gets fixed is the blame. And so, following discovery of multiple accounting errors that led to a nearly $10 million budget shortfall in the Juneau School District, a petition has been launched to recall Deedie Sorensen and Emil Mackey, president and vice-president of the JSD.

However understandable as an expression of community dissatisfaction, if successful it would do great harm. Those directly responsible for the accounting errors are no longer employed by the JSD. And none of the school board’s members could reasonably be expected to have foreseen this crisis.

School board members are usually laypersons elected to represent the public’s interest in how our schools are run. They typically do not have formal training in education, accounting, or public administration. While endowed with broad powers over policy, budget allocation and much else, their ability to enforce their decisions is narrowly constrained. The district superintendent is the board’s only employee, who mediates all communications between the board and all other district staff. And so, the board will not learn of a budget shortfall until informed by the superintendent.

Board members first learned of accounting irregularities at the Nov. 7, 2023 Finance Committee meeting, and the full board discussed the issue at the regular meeting a week later. The JSD’s budget director had resigned by the end of the month. Superintendent Hauser requested authorization to hire a forensic budget analyst to get to the bottom of this at the board’s next meeting on Dec. 12, which the board granted at a special meeting three days later, the minimum time possible given the requirement for two public readings separated by at least three days. The budget analyst set to work immediately thereafter, working through the holiday season to produce a report at the next board meeting on Jan. 9. President Sorensen presented her summary and concerns the following day in the Empire.

This is hardly an example of an inattentive and incompetent board, whose “failure to understand the FY24 budget and accounting errors” is alleged in the recall petitions. Rather, it is an outstanding example of public officials acting promptly and carefully to get to the bottom of a serious crisis in a transparent manner, as all of the meetings were open to the public and the press. President Sorensen, the other board members and Superintendent Hauser deserve our thanks, not disapproval.

Review of the other grounds for the recalls, all of which failed to pass legal muster, suggests that the board’s actions to consolidate the high schools strongly motivated the petition. The case for consolidation has been steadily growing as the JSD’s enrollments continue to decline, from a peak of 5,682 in 1997 to 4,624 in 2017, and 4,082 today. The main causes of the decline is aging of Juneau’s “baby boom” that resulted from a population that more than tripled during the 1970s, coupled with fertility rates below replacement since then. Consequently, this declining trend isn’t going to reverse anytime soon.

The board was indeed made aware of this trend and the eventual need for school consolidation noted in the 2017 Facilities Report. As a member at the time, I recall that most of the members already felt besieged with budget shortfalls, that developing a consolidation plan would dominate the board’s time and resources to the neglect of all other responsibilities, and that opposition from those in the community who would oppose any consolidation no matter what the adverse consequences for the rest of the district would occupy even more of the board’s attention. On present evidence, we were right. Nonetheless, Mr. Mackey continued to spend more time and energy on how to make more efficient and effective use of our buildings than the rest of the board put together. So, far from being proposed in haste, the board’s consolidation plan already had considerable thought behind it.

It often takes a crisis to implement long-needed change. Continuing declines in enrollment and in state funding will require further consolidation. If there’s a silver lining, it’s that the JSD board is especially well prepared and informed to navigate this minefield. But as citizens, we must do our part: don’t support the recall.

• Jeffrey Short was a member of the Juneau Board of Education from 2017-2020.

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