JSD budget panel favors nurses, paras

The Juneau School District Budget Committee heavily favored retaining nurses, para educators and many also focused on greater community interaction when the panel gave its opinion on the proposed budget cuts Tuesday night.

Proposed budget cuts include cutting six of 10 full-time nurses, replacing those nurses with “health assistants,” cutting para educator hours, increased Pupil-to-Teacher-Ratio, administration cuts, custodial and maintenance cuts and many others to meet a $3 million to nearly $6 million deficit.

Members of the public had a chance to share their feelings, and the committee members gave feedback on what they’d like reinstated — and what to either cut or how to fund that reinstatement.

“I would suggest that we continue using registered nurses in our district,” said committee member Laurie Berg. “I think we’ve had compelling testimony. Also I have heard compelling testimony at the Senate Education Committee. I don’t support moving to a different model.”

Most committee members suggested at least more understanding on how the proposed model would even look, while many wanted a retention in nurses over health assistants. At least two wanted to explore options with local medical organizations.

Berg wanted to see retention of para hours and special education funding. She said with her own review of the budget, there were $700,000 funds extra this past year, $800,000 the year prior. Administrative Services Director David Means disagreed with the extent of extra funds in that category.

“I believe we need to support some of the people in the district that are supporting those,” Berg said. “Looking at AYP (Adequate Yearly Progress) in those categories are the ones needing extra help.”

Board member Andi Story suggested keeping special education paraprofessionals as-is, and perhaps look at cutting special education mentors. Board member Barbara Thurston said she would like to find out more of what special education mentors do, and if it’s similar to what instructional coaches do they could possibly be combined.

Story said that the district has in the past had problems getting and retaining paraprofessionals, so she did not feel this is the time to cut their hours — effectively cutting pay and benefits — because she agreed that it would be likely that the issue of hiring and retention would pop up again.

Board member Mark Choate said that while the state appears to be viewing it’s budget as “half empty,” the district is viewing its own that way.

He said the committee members should also be spending a lot of timing looking for additional revenues and support.

“I believe our nurses are clearly necessary,” Choate said. “How come we’re not talking to SEARHC? Twenty-three percent of our student body is Native. I think we should use city buses. We’ve got buses sitting here 12 months a year, utilize those city resources and see if we can save some money. I think we should be recruiting more of our kids to come to school who are homeschooled. That is a huge resource. We should be doing something to attract them. Similarly, rural schools have done very effective programs to do online programs. Why shouldn’t we be the best in the state to provide those types of resources to our state?”

Choate said that for each area they look at cutting, they should also spend as much time looking for volunteer resources in the community to cover that loss.

“I think we have almost no volunteer program that’s being actively pursued and I think that’s wrong,” he said. “There is no reason why when we’ve got retired doctors, attorneys, professional tradesmen, journeymen from different unions, all of them could be utilized. I think we need to cut the activity budget. I’m the first person to push about increasing them. If we’re looking at access for our kids to travel around the state for sports, or to spend money on teaching in the classrooms… spend money in the classrooms.”

Others wanted to maintain the Pupil-to-Teacher-Ratio — two third-grade teachers testified that PTR increases last year meant their classes have 30 students — above the ratio for that grade level. The teachers said that raising the PTR further, coupled with cutting paras, means that having a class with 29 (or more with the increase) other students means your teacher may not get to you if you can’t figure out how to put a sentence together properly, or can’t add 2+5, because they are busy with assisting other students.

Committee member Rebecca Braun asked if they could look into AmeriCorp or VISTA programs. She recognized that one downside to those volunteer bases is that the volunteers are only around for a year — but those people could fill slots like library assistants, truancy officers, and other specialities the district is considering cutting or has cut.

Other members — and even some public — suggested increasing family activity fees and decreasing overall activity budget.

“I feel that’s a luxury we really can’t afford anymore,” Braun said. “Many families that would be willing to pay. We could have a sliding scale that would be done in a respectful way where we would not embarrass the families that are unable to pay.”

Parent Stephanie Allison said that the district went from having families pay perhaps a bit too much for activities to having them not pay enough. She said her son participates in music in the high school as a freshman and she is surprised that she doesn’t have to pay anything for travel — just food, which she would pay for regardless.

Committee member Michael Heiman, JEA representative and middle school teacher, suggested taking a closer look at increasing Yaakoosge Daakahidi High School’s numbers for additional state funding.

He said he sees so many eighth-graders come through that they know will have a hard time in traditional high schools.

Heiman suggested having a two-person team at Yaakoosge so that 8th-graders could join in and not have to go through the stress of going to a high school that doesn’t suit their needs. He said that should also pump Yaakoosge’s enrollment numbers above 175 (minimum for a certain bracket of funding) to gain another $700,000 to $900,000.

Committee members also advocated for the cultural education paras.

“It is a disservice to the community to forget that the majority of the people in this room were not the first people here,” said Board member Kim Poole. “Our students learn how salmon means something. They know the raven, they know the eagle.”

Committee members also advocated to retain maintenance and custodial resources. One member said that the district has spent $150 million to $200 million on building renovations over the past 20 years. He said that if they cut custodial and maintenance too far, taxpayers probably wouldn’t be too receptive to another remodel of the same building in eight years.

A Juneau-Douglas High School coach said maintenance absolutely needs to be improved. She arrived 15 minutes before her contract started this winter, slipped and broke her ankle in the JDHS parking lot. The sand trucks were delayed, and ambulances couldn’t get in because of the conditions. She had dog blankets placed over her from her truck and eventually a tarp so that the sand truck could plow around her. She said it was an absolutely mortifying experience and she couldn’t be in the classroom for a period of time. She said staff and student safety — even down to proper maintenance — shouldn’t be sacrificed.

Superintendent Glenn Gelbrich will come back with a revised proposal at the next meeting, which will not include public testimony.

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


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