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School district confronts $1 million deficit

Costs rise as number of students drops

Posted: Monday, January 21, 2002

Preliminary figures indicate the Juneau School District is facing a deficit in excess of $1.1 million over the next two fiscal years.

"It's disappointing because we thought we had pretty close to a balanced budget (but) we've been surprised by lower enrollment estimates and (higher) risk-management costs," Superintendent Gary Bader said. "That's going to pose some real challenges to us."

The Juneau School Board will take up those challenges for fiscal years 2003-04 at budget meetings scheduled for 5 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday at the district offices at 1208 Glacier Ave. The district's budget for each of the two years will be roughly $38 million to $39 million.

As referenced by Bader, a decline in district enrollment the benchmark used to determine state funding is one of two major sources of concern for the district. It is expected to fall from 5,516 students this fiscal year to 5,446 for fiscal year 2003, which begins July 1 of this year. A decline to 5,336 is forecast for fiscal year 2004.

"Overall, the birth rate is declining significantly," said district Business Manager Zachary Hanna. "That's the dominant issue driving our decline in enrollment."

The anticipated reduction in student population would cost the district state and city revenue exceeding $845,000 over the period.

The other major concern is a dramatic rise in insurance costs for the city, which had been subsidized for several years due to some insurance surpluses prior to 1998.

Without the subsidies, early estimates show the school district's costs to the city for workers' compensation, general liability/auto and property insurance will increase 361 percent over this fiscal year, to $717,300.

To make up the budget gap, the board will need to look at budget "drivers" guidelines such as pupil-teacher ratio. Under current ratios 24-1 at elementary, 21.5-1 at middle and 25.75-1 at high school levels the number of teachers in the district would fall from 259 now to 252 by fiscal year 2004.

By increasing or decreasing that ratio, the board could increase or decrease district staffing levels. The board can also re-examine staffing and funding levels among the administration, support staff and in programs such as special education and gifted and talented.

School Board members expressed concern about the budget figures they are facing at the start of the process.

"It's been several years since we've looked at numbers this negative," said Alan Schorr, a board member since 1991. "These are not modest amounts, and there are always additional demands."

"We never seem to have enough money, and we always seem to need more," said board Secretary Carolyn Spalding.

Both said they were particularly concerned about the insurance issue.

Schorr said the board will need to be "open and flexible" through the process when looking for ways to reduce costs.

Following this week's meetings, there will be several weeks of preparation and review of budgets on building, then district levels. The first reading of the completed budget is set for March 5, with a meeting for public comment on March 12 and the second reading on March 19. A final budget request is due to the Assembly by March 29.

Andrew Krueger can be reached at akrueger@juneauempire.com.



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