Moving boxes in the Thunder Mountain High School library. (Photo provided by Jenny Thomas)

Moving boxes in the Thunder Mountain High School library. (Photo provided by Jenny Thomas)

My Turn: School district should reevaluate hidden costs, rethink consolidation

Imagine that our school district was not being dismantled by a superintendent whose primary residence is listed in Anchorage, that community input was valued, and the needs of students were in the forefront of every decision the board made. Just pretend that education matters and, over the last seven years, the board took the time to plan a consolidation process instead of wringing their hands and hoping that the flat funding would miraculously change.

Why didn’t the board spend time being proactive to continue to meet the needs of all students in the district, cut costs, look for additional funding sources, and develop a re-organization model that maintained financial security? With the knowledge of a looming district shortfall, the board had opportunities to put in the hard work necessary to keep student success at the heart of all decisions. Instead they remained silent, acted surprised by the financial crisis and rushed to make decisions hoping the hard part would finally be behind them.

What they didn’t consider was that the blatant mismanagement of a non-existent consolidation plan which failed to focus on preserving the integrity of our school district, maintaining various student-centered school climates, and providing a healthy working environment for all district employees would cause community unrest.

Rather than adopting a plan that focused on the needs of district finances and caused the least amount of disruption to students, the board allowed the superintendent to push through a consolidation model, not a plan. The superintendent has been sugar-coating and cherry-picking the facts he reports to the public and the board. Superintendent Frank Hauser has shown no respect, compassion, or courtesy to staff, students, or parents who are faced with the upcoming changes. Is demanding that teachers pack their classrooms by the last day of school or else it goes to the dump how educators should be treated? Teachers should be focusing on helping kids navigate this stressful time instead of being hired movers. Students should be preparing for final exams and getting excited about the school year ending, instead they are walking into classrooms filled with Home Depot boxes with teachers who have been threatened to not complain or speak up if they want a job.

Anyone familiar with change management knows the importance of weighing all options: budgetary, student, staff, and community impacts to best minimize inherent negative impacts from a major change like a districtwide consolidation. Had the board developed a plan of action that looked at all the “hidden costs” associated with a districtwide consolidation, my requests to re-evaluate their decision would be pointless. But we know from public testimony that not only did the board not even use a rubric, many board members felt they voted without all the necessary facts. Was it just peer pressure to make a decision or was there another agenda at play?

The “hidden costs” were and still are being neglected despite community outcry about impacts on students: change in start times/end times, access to before/after school activities, the removal of neighborhood schools, the impacts of overcrowding on our growing SPED population, or simply the loss of instructional time because teachers were forced to pack up their classrooms when they should be preparing for finals and end-of-year activities. These costs should have been factored in along with all costs associated with executing a consolidation plan, from renovation costs to increased transportation costs/time due to bussing students across town, and even the costs of new materials for core, elective and CTE classes. Even community impacts such as increased property taxes further highlight the ramifications of not having a consolidation plan.

While students spend the last few weeks of the school year trying to get an education through the mess of boxes and stressed out teachers, it would be nice if the board used that same time to develop an assessment tool to re-evaluate the consolidation process and the impacts of the various models. The board can still rescind their vote and instruct the superintendent to modify the consolidation plan previously submitted to DEED before June 30, 2024.

If model SB1 truly does the least harm to all students, why not just prove it? What are they so afraid of?

• Jenny Thomas is a Juneau resident with two children in high school who is among the backers of a ballot petition seeking to recall the president and vice president of the Juneau Board of Education.

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