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JSD board struggles to trim its tight budget

Posted: March 27, 2012 - 11:02pm

The Juneau School District Board of Education struggled again with passing a final budget, much the same as it did last year, in line with a $5.8 million budget reduction.

The board members made several motions and amendments — also much like last year — in approving a budget to send to the Assembly by Friday.

Public members of the budget committee prepared and presented a page of alternatives for the board to consider — adding back cultural specialists, one custodian, Extended Learning and one elementary arts position in exchange for reducing attorney fees, fuel costs, pupil transportation costs and things relating to Next Generation and studies.

Board members struggled with the proposal; the majority said it was too late in the process to start considering alternatives.

Board member Mark Choate made a motion for an amendment to the administration’s prepared budget to make the public member’s recommendations — which also added more items to the add-back list. Board member Barbara Thurston was the lone supporter.

Choate said he believed it was important to pass the changes because it shows that the board listens to the public and reflects value in what community believes is important in public education.

“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.”

Board member Phyllis Carlson adamantly disagreed with Choate’s opinion, saying 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.

Some of those include equity training and the school climate survey.

“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.”

Board member Andi Story was also uncomfortable with the process. She said that she believes the Legislature will approve enough funding to reinstate elementary specialists and cultural specialists. Story said the district also is in the middle of contract negotiations. She believes both will be wrapped up in April and that’s when discussions of when to add back should take place.

Choate said he supports at least some of the changes because there has been no process for community members on the Budget Committee or others to actually make changes to the administration’s proposal.

“I absolutely understand Phyllis’ discussions,” Choate said. “If I have choices I’ll let the other ones wait for money as to those existing programs.”

Thurston agreed with Choate on the question of process.

“One of the big frustrations I have on the Budget Committee is we weren’t able to come to a resolution,” she said.

Board member Sean O’Brien said he couldn’t support it either because he felt it was an unfair process to come in at the end with changes without showing the consequences for making the other cuts.

Choate said the board has the ability to make changes to administrative proposals and should consider doing so. He said that some things on the cut list are more important to keep than the new recommended cuts. He said that doesn’t mean the cut suggestions aren’t important to have, but that the items to keep have a bigger priority.

The next amendment was to approve a portion of the list. Choate proposed adding back elementary specialists and cutting fuel costs, attorney fees, pupil transportation by 3 percent and high school activities to fiscal year 2011 actual levels.

Juneau-Douglas High School student representative Clarissa Ulmeyer urged the board to consider making at least some of the committee’s suggestions.

“Don’t totally turn it down as a whole,” she said. “I think there are a lot of really great things in here worth keeping.”

Ulmeyer said while process is important, she felt the board was too focused on process over choosing priorities in cuts.

That motion garnered some of the same debate, but Board member Kim Poole joined Choate and Thurston in support. The motion still failed 4-3.

Thurston asked if there was a point in making another amendment to the budget — if the board would be interested in making adjustments. She said the board should be sticking with whatever budget the approve and then coming back in April and looking at the budget as a formality. If more funds come in, they add back items on the add-back list and approve it. Thurston said that keeping the entire budget in flux for things to cut and keep after all the funding levels are finalized puts too many people in an uncertain zone.

“If I were on the activities committee I would find it disturbing,” she said. “We might approve it today and in April we might go ahead and change our mind.”

Superintendent Glenn Gelbrich reiterated to the board that Thurston is just asking for the process that administration proposed at the start of the budget committee’s work. The idea was to create a budget based on what funding sources are known, and then create an add-back list to consider if more becomes available.

The board continued discussion on the budget, looking to see if there were changes that could be supported, past the Empire print deadline Tuesday evening.

Members of the public also had testified, in agreement with the proposed changes because what those changes cut were "stuff" and the district proposal cuts "staff."

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

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