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Schools facing $4.5M shortfall

Cuts would include 30 teaching positions

Posted: January 22, 2014 - 1:04am

In just two weeks, the projected shortfall in the Juneau School District budget for next year ballooned from $3.1 million to a “truly overwhelming” $4.5 million, Superintendent Glenn Gelbrich told members of the budget committee Tuesday night.

The result will be 35 full-time equivalent positions being eliminated — including 30 teaching positions, seven and a half of which are special education personnel.

That means class sizes will be increasing by an average of three students across the district, and the special education teachers will be asked to take on more students as well.

“We’re tired of the funding environment that makes these cuts necessary,” Gelbrich said sternly.

The news came hours after Anchorage officials announced budget cuts in Alaska’s largest city would result in the elimination of 6 percent of that district’s teaching positions. The cuts in Juneau amount to more than 8 percent of the budgeted teaching positions.

“Our budget reality reflects a pattern of flat funding, decreased enrollment and rising costs,” Gelbrich said. “The challenge this year is daunting at best, and demoralizing for people who care about student success.”

Since 2011, Juneau has slashed its teaching staff by 18 percent and cut about $11.7 million from its budget. Those years of reduction make this year’s cuts all the more difficult, Gelbrich added.

“It isn’t like we’re trying to reduce $4.5 million from the budget; we’re trying to reduce $4.5 million more,” he said.

Two things contribute to the budget gap increase: an enrollment projection of one less intensive needs student — $100,000 — and a new offer from the district to settle its ongoing labor dispute with the teachers’ union — $1.3 million.

The $1.3 million increase is directly related to the district’s new offer to the Juneau Education Association, but the figure does not represent the exact amount teachers would get in the deal. Rather, it is the total impact of the deal on all personnel costs, Gelbrich said.

“While the challenge may be daunting, our mission is not negotiable,” Gelbrich said. “Our community will, and should, hold us to our goal to maintain success for all students — literally, each one, every one.”

There are two significant unknown factors in the budget process currently. First, the $1.3 million in increased cost for personnel is based on an offer that has not been accepted as a final deal by the district’s teachers union. Juneau officials have also lobbied the Legislature to fund $600,000 of the planned curriculum increase.

The budget gap of $4.5 million represents about 7 percent of the district’s operating fund (excluding payments to employee retirement systems by the state). It is the product of $1.6 million in decreased revenue next year and $2.9 million in increased costs.

The revenue decrease stems from reduced enrollment projections going into next year from the current year, and the increase in expenditures comes from a myriad of categories.

New elementary language arts and secondary math curriculums will cost $1.1 million, which is included in an increase of $766,000 over last year’s curriculum budget. The three next largest contributors to the cost increases are upgrading technology ($250,000), fixing bandwidth problems — particularly at Thunder Mountain High School ($200,000) and regular pay increases for teachers who added a year of experience ($169,685).

“We’re almost in no man’s land here,” Gelbrich said.

To address the budget gap, school district officials proposed working to increase revenue by about $391,000, and decreasing expenditures by more than $4.1 million. The 30 teaching positions to be cut account for just under $3.1 million of that decrease, and the other five positions to go away account for about $230,000.

“We need to ask hard questions about whether or not we can afford to make these levels of reductions to our public schools,” Gelbrich said.

The next two largest line-item reductions to the budget include reducing support for high school activities including travel ($140,000) and a 5 percent across the board non-personnel budget cut by district-level offices ($94,424).

“The high school program is really going to have to struggle at what activities they fund, and how they fund it,” said David Means, the director of administrative services for the district.

The budget committee will accept public comment at its next meeting on Tuesday, Jan. 28, at 6 p.m. at Dzantik’i Heeni Middle School. The committee’s final recommendation is due to the school board by March 4.

Still, the budget numbers Juneau, Anchorage and all districts are working with are subject to change even after budgets are due to the city — if the Legislature were to change any aspect of education funding.

“It’s our job to make these reductions, and we have a responsibility to help our representatives understand we’re slowly cooking the frog here,” Gelbrich said. “And it won’t be long before we won’t be able to deliver what our kids need.”

• Contact reporter Matt Woolbright at 523-2243 or at matthew.woolbright@juneauempire.com. Follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/reportermatt.

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