JSD Budget committee: Give us more options to tweak

Posted: Thursday, February 03, 2011

Some Juneau School District budget committee members want to see the superintendent go back to the drawing board on several aspects of the budget proposal.

At Tuesday’s budget meeting, the teachers, students and parents took the floor for more than an hour largely advocating to keep Extended Learning, a low pupil-to-teacher ratio (PTR), Literacy Leaders and the arts specialist. They also advocated to change the focus of the elementary-heavy cuts.

After getting public feedback, and reflecting on a proposal to cut $4.1 million to balance fiscal year 2012’s anticipated budget, some of the committee wanted to see different options.

“I really do appreciate the work the administration has done, making the budget process more transparent,” said committee member Richard Monkman. “When I was trying to sum up what we had talked about — elementary, pre-elementary was critical; small class sizes, teacher contact was critical; increased academic content and academic quality; seeking equity for all students. I was hoping to see that come out in the budget.”

That, however, is exactly where the bulk of the cuts came.

“You’ve been working the numbers,” he said. “Let’s see a budget more like we’ve been talking about with strength-based budgeting. Looking at what is not working. I think this committee would be well within its rights to do this.”

He said if a program like Extended Learning needs to be reworked, then a specific intentional plan should be completed to do so, not by making “random” cuts to it.

Monkman felt a lot of the other contentious cuts didn’t have much thought behind them as well.

Committee member Laurie Berg agreed.

“The budget proposal that we got last week, was really disappointing to me,” she said. “I felt agitated about them.”

School board member and committee member Mark Choate also advocated for keeping well-performing programs.

“Our school performance, if you knew the data, you would not be happy,” Choate said. “With all the literacy programs and all the money we spend, they are not performing. Alaska standards are some of the worst in the country. If we don’t take a handle on this and grab it, our children will not be prepared for the future. We’re not performing. I commend the administration for their efforts to make the data transparent. I was hoping by this point in time we could say — this is working it needs to be funded, this is not working it needs to be defunded.”

He said a district-wide literacy policy and program is needed, and that the district needs to support all children.

“I don’t understand why we’re cutting programs that are high performing like EL,” Choate said. “I think we’re going to have to look hard. The way we treat all kids is important. It is too easy to assume kids who have a lot of potential and ability will make it even if we don’t give assistance.”

Committee member, middle school teacher and union representative Mike Heiman advocated for maintaining the pupil-to-teacher-ratio (PTR). He said at the very least K-3 should not have increased PTR because that’s when students need the most individualized setting.

He also advocated for the arts specialist program, adding that it helps apply math, science and social studies concepts.

Ways to make up for the costs, he suggested, would be to eliminate the drug testing program and MAPS testing.

“MAPS is not as valuable as I think some people think that it is,” Heiman said, adding that parents don’t see the results or value. “The MAPS program for teachers is not valuable. We have not been given enough training to make it effective. We don’t have the training. It’s a large, large program. I don’t think its as valuable to students because they’re losing instructional time.”

Other committee members were more accepting of the proposed cuts.

Board member Phyllis Carlson said they have to think of all students when making cuts. She said if they excluded Extended Learning and cut another area it would only bring out another sector of people who see value in the program.

“We’re losing students all the time,” she said. “We’re losing bus loads of students. They need services and access so they can provide for their families and futures as well. One student is not more valuable than another. I don’t want to lose any one of them.”

Board member Barbara Thurston did not support fully reinstating EL.

“I suspect I had a different impression listening to the kids,” she said. “I found it very depressing because a significant portion said I’m glad I have EL because I don’t learn anything in my other classes. It sounds like we’re not doing a very good job of meeting the continuum.”

Thurston said these children spend a majority of their time in their other classes, so those classes need to have value as well.

Many committee members were concerned about the PTR. Most suggested leaving the ratio as-is in K-3 levels. Thurston suggested looking at PTR in individual schools. She recognized the concern Gastineau Community School had, given that it’s a small school. A rise from 22:1 pupil to teacher ratio to 22:1 would actually mean a 28-30 student classroom with one teacher.

Thurston also targeted MAPS testing, but suggested it be revised to a smaller portion of students. She said her sophomore had just taken the test and doubted his instruction would change as a result. Thurston suggested using it at the primary level.

She said the committee and board should advocate for combining the Montessori program and Yaakoosge Daakahidi, because that would make them eligible for additional state funds of about $1.2 million.

The committee asked for the superintendent to re-look at the budget and find other options for cuts that would meet the deficit.

Board member Sally Saddler said they’re likely to continue to see undesirable cuts because the recommendations of what to cut and what to keep will not add up to a $4.1 million reduction.

The committee will meet again on Feb. 10 from 6-8 p.m. before it has a joint meeting with the Assembly at a later date. The school board budget has to be finalized with the Assembly by March 31.

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

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