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Parents want more discussion on RALLY cuts

Posted: November 9, 2011 - 1:02am

Parents with students in Juneau School District’s RALLY program (Recreation, Arts, Learning, and Leadership for Youth) are upset with the district’s lack of discussion before it decided to make significant cuts.

RALLY is a state-licensed child care program within the elementary schools before and after school and in the summer. The district announced last week all morning versions of the program except at Harborview Elementary will end Jan. 3, and afternoon programs at Mendenhall River Community School and Glacier Valley will combine. The district said it has to make the cuts because the district lost $150,000 last fiscal year with the program, even with 10 percent fee increases. It also considered enrollment levels.

Amy Mead, parent of a first- and third-grader at Mendenhall River, said she felt like she couldn’t have an intelligent discussion with the district about the issues because there was so little information given behind the decision-making process.

Mead is an attorney with the City and Borough of Juneau and her husband is a firefighter with Capital City Fire and Rescue.

“We have made a lot of sacrifices to avoid day care,” she said. “Day care in Juneau can be difficult, stressful, not a nice process to go through. We’ve been so happy with the RALLY program at MRCS.”

The family is not pleased with the thought of their children being bused to Glacier Valley, and she said the children are stressed about the prospect of the change mid-year.

“I don’t feel like we got any information about why its happening,” she said. “... What the long-term effects are, a long-term plan. Whether or not it’s actually going to happen or there’s still room for discussion.”

Neil Stichert also is a parent of a MRCS student. He said the cuts in the program put the burden on the students and hits MRCS the hardest because it’s losing both of its RALLY programs.

Stichert wanted to see the district give in-depth information on the budgetary issues of the program.

Amanda Cole said her son attends Juneau Charter School and attends RALLY at Harborview.

“He’s not going to be affected by the changes this time, I’m here in support of parents of other rally programs,” she said. “I just wanted to say it’s not just MRCS community parents who are upset with changes in RALLY. I want to make sure this decision is made with a lot of thought and care.”

Lisa Wallace, another MRCS parent, said RALLY is a necessity for their family because they have to work. She had high accolades for the school’s RALLY program and its staff.

“They are licensed,” Wallace said. “They are not just baby-sitters. Folks see RALLY as just baby-sitting and that the school district wants to get out of the business of baby-sitting.”

She asked why the district didn’t anticipate the budgetary problems with RALLY ahead of the school year and why it must be cut mid-year. Wallace said the mid-year cut means a huge disruption for the children.

“We are going to have an ugly transition period,” she said. “I would also ask, at the very least, let’s postpone this. Let’s get some meetings together and include the parents in the discussion of the future of RALLY.”

Pete Ford, representative of Juneau Education Support Staff employees, said the cuts in RALLY affect staff and they are members of JESS. The group is concerned about the cuts and will be meeting Wednesday. One part of the discussion will be the process of a reduction in staff.

“Two things that came across to me, RALLY is such a very important program for the community,” he said. “Children and families need and use the program. We think we should be doing things to enhance their use. In 2002-2003 (RALLY was) in the black, and managed in a very, very different way.”

Superintendent Glenn Gelbrich said the decision remains, but the district is more than open to having discussions with groups of people about making the parts of RALLY that aren’t fiscally feasible work.

“The RALLY decision was made for financial reasons,” he said. “It was based on the fiscal viability of each program. The decision from our standpoint is a firm decision. The reason we want it to be firm is we want families to have the opportunity as much as possible to make changes. Having said that, if there are groups of people who would like to meet and find ways to make it viable — it must be viable — then we’re happy to meet with them. If there is a way to identify a fiscally-viable way to stall the closure of the morning programs or combination of afternoon programs we’re open to it. In our investigation, we couldn’t find it.”

Board members asked if there was any parent or instructor input ahead of the announcement. There wasn’t, but the administration spoke with school principals.

“Because there are personnel matters involved in this, we had to be a little bit thoughtful about how we went about communicating this,” Gelbrich said. “We didn’t ask for site-based input. The sites have been aware of the financial situation for some time.”

Board member Andi Story suggested the district have a meeting to help families better understand the decision.

The school board also heard a report on its financial audit. The district had an “unqualified audit,” which is the best audit it can get. There were no material findings in the audit, however the auditing firm Elgee Rehfeld Mertz, LLC, did make four recommendations to the district that could be problems later:

• Student activity agency funds need more oversight. The auditors found that student activity funds are allocated out of special revenue and agency funds. The district management, the report states, “has not monitored the agency student activity funds at a level to ensure that spending is limited to amounts available.” The firm recommends more oversight so that timely billing and matching balances occur.

• Grant policy needs to be consistently followed. The district has a stringent policy on grant fund spending that requires good or services being received before the grant end-date in order to be eligible for reimbursement. This is a rule for some of the grants the district receives funds from, however not all. Exceptions have been made for grants with more of a relaxed structure. The firm recommends the more stringent practice be held true for all grants because of the risk of potential non-compliance.

• Student file documentation needs to be unified. The firm found that documentation for Alaska’s Student Data Reporting Manual has not been updated. Some are still in paper format, while more and more are becoming digitized. One problem is that there is no linking of the records, and school sites are differing on filing methods. Should there be an issue with the documentation, the district could face compliance findings, the firm said. It recommended the district develop a district-wide procedure manual on the records and electronic use, and provide additional staff training.

• Cash collection controls need review. The firm is concerned about the programs that accept cash, like RALLY, Food Service, Community Schools and Student Activities. The report said that collection of cash outside the finance department is risky and reconciliation procedures related to collections haven’t been “designed or implemented in such a way to ensure agreement and completeness of collections.” It emphasized a need for more internal controls at the sites.

The board also unanimously approved an updated Search and Seizure policy. The board first saw it in August and was uncomfortable with potential impacts on student constitutional rights. It went back through committee last month.

“I appreciate the extra effort that was put in by everyone to be more explicit about protecting students constitutional rights and protecting the safety of everyone,” said Board member Mark Choate.

• Editor's note: This article has been changed to reflect Amanda Cole is a parent of a student at Juneau Charter School, not an employee there.

• Contact reporter Sarah Day at 523-2279 or at sarah.day@juneauempire.com.

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