Juneau School Board votes to cut 20 teachers to balance $90 million budget

Saddler: Cuts and curriculum purchase are 'agonizing decision'

The Juneau School District Board of Education voted unanimously to adopt the district administration’s $90 million budget proposal, which includes a new elementary language arts curriculum and 20 fewer teachers.

 

The curriculum will unify elementary reading and writing teaching across the district, which administrators expect will improve at-grade level reading rates. But the $500,000 purchase means less money to pay teachers. The resulting cuts will add about three students to each class in the district as classes are consolidated.


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The school district’s non-voting student representative, Juneau-Douglas High School student Ruby Steedle, spoke against the teacher cuts.

Board members noted at their Tuesday meeting that although keeping the pupil-to-teacher ratio low is important, getting new curriculum is essential, and the district can’t afford both.

Many board members mentioned in their comments that they believe having one elementary reading curriculum will help the district’s struggling students. One-third of the district’s students are not reading at grade level, board vice president Sean O’Brien said.

“We’ve been leaving a lot of kids behind, and that’s just not OK with me,” board member Phyllis Carlson said. “We’re not advocating just for our child ... we’re advocating for our district and our community. When we say in our documents that we’re here for all kids, we really need to do that.”

Board president Sally Saddler was out of town during the meeting but participated by teleconference.

Before the board voted to approve the budget, parents and teachers testified for and against the new elementary language arts curriculum. Speakers included several district elementary school principals who advocated a unified curriculum.

In the end, the board opted to adopt the district administration’s proposal.

“I hate to say ‘both sides,’ but obviously there has been a bit of divisiveness,” O’Brien said, referring to the curriculum-versus-PTR discussion.

He said the district needs to change what it has been doing for years — it’s not enough in light of new, more rigorous state standards.

“If it was enough, we’d be doing better,” he said. “If what we were doing in the past was effective and it worked, we would not be having the issues we’re having today, period.”

The budget will now go to the City and Borough of Juneau Assembly for approval. The Assembly is scheduled to consider the budget March 28.

Also at the Tuesday meeting, the board voted to accept Superintendent Glenn Gelbrich’s resignation. No members of the public spoke on the resignation.

Thurston said she, and everyone else on the board, accepts Gelbrich’s resignation “with regret,” and clarified that Gelbrich will not be given severance pay. Thurston said someone asked her if the departing superintendent will receive a severance package because he is contracted to remain with the district through 2016.

“That was obviously not an issue here because he chose to leave, he wasn’t asked to leave,” Thurston said.

Several board members commended Gelbrich for his ability to balance the budget when funding decreased dramatically. He came on board in July 2009, right when the “funds stopped,” Carlson said.

What she appreciated most about his leadership was his “calmness at the helm,” she said.

“We’ve had a lot of rough-and-tumble times in our district, and change is difficult,” Carlson said.

O’Brien said he “honestly feels embarrassed” by the “misperceptions” about Gelbrich that he said have been tossed around the community — what he called unfounded personal attacks on a person “that is truly so remarkable.”

“I am disheartened by that, I am embarrassed by that, and I expected more from the Juneau community,” he said.

Gelbrich said he has been made to feel welcome in Juneau by many residents.

“There are many many people in this community and this school district who have welcomed me into their homes and into their lives,” he said. “I’m deeply grateful for these five years.”

The board will meet in executive session before its next scheduled meeting in two weeks to discuss how it will proceed with a superintendent search. Public meetings will follow.

• Contact reporter Katie Moritz at 523-2294 or at katherine.moritz@juneauempire.com. Follow her on Twitter @katecmoritz.

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