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JSD approves budget after 3 hours of deliberation with no changes

Posted: March 27, 2012 - 10:14pm  |  Updated: March 28, 2012 - 1:54pm

The Juneau School District Board of Education spent three hours deliberating over a budget that cuts $5.8 million from the budget, ultimately approving a budget that remains basically unchanged from when it came out of the Budget Committee several months ago.

The board went through three motions for amendments to the base budget recommendation presented by administration.

The motions for amendments were based on a recommendation from a submission from the public members of the Budget Committee. Those members sent the recommendation for alternate cuts and add-backs to the budget earlier on Tuesday. The school district has to have a budget to the Assembly by Friday.

The new proposal suggested adding back the cultural specialists, art specialist, one Extended Learning position, one custodial position in exchange for cutting attorney fees, 1 percent of the pupil transportation budget, fuel costs, equity training, two items that relate to administrator and teacher professional development training and other costs. The change in the broad scheme of a $90 million budget was a matter of about $300,000.

Board member Mark Choate supported the change.

“We get (to make) the votes, but this not only reflects their consensus, but they’re all reasonable,” Choate said. “I think it’s a reasonable effort to make cuts and to make additions.”

He called the budget process — which he believes is a great improvement over past years — flawed. He said there isn’t a time for Budget Committee or board members to effectively propose and make changes except at the last minute. Choate said there really isn’t an element for the board to look at a set of budget cuts and weigh what it is they want to keep and what to cut. Board member Barbara Thurston — who chaired the Budget Committee this year — agreed. She said next year she’d like to see a piece added where administration not only proposes things like cuts in the budget, but also options and recommendations of why administration would pick one option over another.

Board member Phyllis Carlson objected to their sentiments, saying that everyone was at the table through the process and everyone had an opportunity to make a change.

She said that some of the items on the proposed list to be cut are things the board has spent years deliberating and discussing and they shouldn’t just be chopped on a last-minute decision.

“To throw it out at a last-minute meeting ... it’s a process we’ve worked very hard to get away from,” she said. “I would be OK with status quo if all of our students in this district were succeeding, but they’re not. To just eliminate that at this point, I can’t support this.”

Laurie Berg, who has served on the Budget Committee and speaks as a citizen often, said that the attitude of the board — the resistance to changing anything from administration — makes people feel like there is no way to get a change in the budget.

“I really have been disappointed,” she said. “The limited changes that were made to a $90 million budget shows a total inflexibility of the cabinet in listening to community members and listening to community members talking about community values. There was $30,000 changed within the activities for the elementary, there were some nurses added back on. There’s hardly been any changes.”

Berg said people are really frustrated with this.

“They just don’t feel like they are being listened to,” she said. “They just don’t know how to alter any change.”

Budget Committee member Michael Heiman spoke in favor of the amendment. He also is a teacher at Floyd Dryden.

“What I see with this amendment, is I see one of the most painful things that Mr. Gelbrich had to make a decision about, which was cutting some jobs,” he said. “This isn’t cutting jobs, this is keeping some people in our community, maybe people in our community literally. These are jobs that will reach out to children. I really enjoyed Alison’s (Smith, Auke Bay teacher) analysis of stuff versus people. This is stuff. This is making us tighten our belts a little more. It’s stuff I can tighten my belt for.”

Board members ultimately did not support a full — or even partial — adoption of any of the changes. Board member Andi Story wanted to wait for changes for the April budget meeting when two budget factors would be known — employee negotiations and legislative funding.

Thurston did not want to wait until April to make the statement that what is approved stands and that in April all that would basically be done is add back positions with any extra funds that are available.

“We’re going to do a budget based on the amount of money we’re sure of,” Thurston said. “I’m uncomfortable with saying we’re probably going to get the money. We have to recognize we might get money, but we might not get money. We need to pass a budget tonight based on what money we’re sure of.”

Other members felt that the budget process was good and that it was too late to make the proposed changes at the last minute.

“I’m right now, really leaning toward accepting the budget we have in front of us and seeing what happens at the end of the session,” said Andi Story, board member.

Rebecca Braun, committee member, said she would have liked to present the budget earlier, however she wanted input from as many public members of the committee as possible and was done by phone and email. She encouraged the board to at least consider pieces of it.

Choate and Thurston tried to pass another amendment that only made the cuts to legal, fuel, pupil transportation and activities to keep the cultural specialists. Board member Kim Poole joined them in moving for that approval, however it still failed 4-3.

Thurston tried for a more collaborative process in trying to get a solid budget passed for the next year by putting some of the things in the sub-committee’s cut list into the budget. She recommended taking those items — many of the same in the prior amendment — but also including $50,000 reduction in the technology refresh cycle and a few others for a total of about $270,000. These items would have been moved to a proposed “cut,” but the funds would have been set in a reserve account until April. Thurston said that would let people involved in those aspects know their area is still up for discussion and possible cuts, while everything else would presumably be in place next year. It didn’t mean those things would truly be cut, but more of a way of finalizing most of the budget and leaving room for the board to prioritize what they really want to keep out of anything that will be added back.

That also failed 4-3, with Choate, Thurston and Sally Saddler in favor.

Saddler asked if there were any more amendments and both Choate and Thurston felt like there wasn't a point.

"The sense I’m getting tonight is people want to defer decisions," Thurston said. "It sounds like we want to leave the door open to maybe taking things out of the budget in April. I feel like that is very unfair to our staff, our students and our parents. I’m not going to make any more amendments tonight. I disagree with Sean’s (O'Brien, board member) statement that the budget was a collaborative process. Administration was very responsive to questions, but I don’t think the budget committee or board had any significant input into what went into the budget thus far."

The board passed the administration’s recommended budget with Choate and Thurston dissenting.

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

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