The Juneau School District will cut 14 full-time positions next year, rather than the 30 originally predicted, after a boost in funding from the state.
The school board met in a special meeting Tuesday night to finalize the district’s budget after the Alaska Legislature boosted education funding and the City and Borough of Juneau Assembly decided to hold funding stable. Among the add-backs were 13 teachers, one custodian and two special education administrative assistants for a total of 16 full-time positions.
The school board was required to finalize its budget before the Legislature finished its work, and the board’s initial proposal was based on no increase from the state. Instead, lawmakers decided to raise the state’s per-student funding from $5,680 per student to $5,830 next year. The amount will rise another $50 each of the next two years.
The resurrection of these teachers from the budget cut list will reduce a rise in the pupil-teacher ratio. Instead of adding three students to each classroom, the additional teachers will mean increases of 0.5 students per teacher from kindergarten through fifth grade and one student per teacher in grades six through 12.
All in all, the district will receive about $118 million from the state next year — including payments into the district’s retirement system — and about $25 million from the city. The amount provided by the city is the same amount as last year, but $200,000 less than the maximum allowed by law. The Assembly has traditionally funded the district to the limit but is reluctant to do so this year because of a $15 million budget deficit projected for the next two years.
During debates Tuesday night, school board member Barbara Thurston suggested $300,000 of the new state money be set aside — $200,000 for future curricula and the rest for administrative jobs at district headquarters. The budget amendment would have diminished the number of teachers brought back from its cut list, increasing the student-teacher ratio by one student across all grade levels.
Thurston argued that her amendment would set aside money for items the district must purchase in coming years, decreasing future budgeting stress.
Lively discussion was had as the board once again weighed pupil-teacher ratio and curriculum. Board member Andi Story was the first to speak out against rerouting some of the new money to future curricula.
“I would rather have more PTR than curriculum at this point,” Story said. “I would rather (set aside more money for curriculum) later. This to me was still the priority that came from the administration team.”
Board President Sally Saddler said during the discussion that it was tough to take a side on Thurston and Story’s disagreement.
“I’m really conflicted, because I understand the spirit and the intent (of the amendment),” Saddler said. “You know, for me, the curriculum is part of the stuff that helps staff and helps kids. It’s not like investing in curriculum is not investing in our students.”
Superintendent Glenn Gelbrich said it’s hard to say whether school administration would rather keep PTR as low as possible or save for future curriculum updates.
“The closeness of the call is represented by the board’s conversation tonight,” Gelbrich said. “It’s not an easy call. Either way, it’s a good investment.”
But, he said, “I think they would go with the original budget proposal.”
In the end, the board decided to keep the PTR increase as low as possible, voting down Thurston’s amendment 6-1. Thurston was the only member voting in favor.
Also at its Tuesday meeting, the board discussed drafting a letter to the assembly to ask for more funding, preferably to the cap.
“We need to give them a proposal of how they’re going to find that $900,000,” Thurston said. “I think the value of the community having schools as strong as possible is worth it.”
Editor’s note: The meeting was still in progress at press time.