Cutting back at schools

Some board members say too many teachers being targeted by district

Posted: Sunday, February 06, 2000

Some Juneau School Board members say a budget document being prepared for the Juneau Assembly is unrealistically top-heavy on teacher layoffs. They'd rather save some teacher positions by cutting a few administrators.

``It seems to me the burden unfairly comes down on teachers,'' school board member Alan Schorr said at last Tuesday's meeting.

School board members said they don't want to cut any staff. But the assembly, facing a possible $3.5 million to $4 million budget deficit of its own, has asked the school district to assess the impacts of a $1.3 million reduction in city funds.

``This whole exercise is to look at impacts on all departments,'' Dwight Perkins, chairman of the assembly's Finance Committee, said in an interview. ``This is not to say we'll go across the board.''

The reduction would mean laying off one central office administrator and 13 elementary, five middle school and four high school teachers, the school district said in a letter being prepared for the assembly.

The reduction also would require laying off 7 custodians and cutting the special education budget by 2 percent.

But some school board members questioned whether the budget letter realistically portrays what the board would cut.

``Both philosophically and realistically, we would cast our net a little broader to save money,'' Schorr said.

The assembly wants the school board to give an honest effort in assessing impacts of a cut, said school board member Deana Darnall.

``I think what we give them should be more realistic about what we really would do, instead of something dramatic,'' she said.

Deputy Mayor John MacKinnon said the assembly has felt some frustration with the school board for a few years.

``They try to put the effect of our actions right down to the classroom level,'' he said in an interview. ``I think realistically that's not where the effect is largely felt. We certainly don't want to see a significant effect at the classroom level.''

Schorr said Tuesday that savings could easily come from laying off several administrators in the schools and the central office, without affecting academic programs.

Schorr talked about splitting the duties of an assistant principal between the two middle schools. Each middle school, with 600 to 700 students, now has a principal and an assistant principal.

He suggested the school board could cut some of the administrators at Juneau-Douglas High School. With about 1,600 students, it has three assistant principals and a separate administrator for Yaakoosge Daakahidi, the 100-student alternative high school.

And Schorr said the budget plan doesn't address staffing in the Phoenix and CHOICE alternative programs at the high school. Those programs have lower class sizes than most classes in the regular high school.

But Chuck Cohen, who is on the school board's Budget Committee, said the number of JDHS administrators is consistent with similarly sized high schools statewide.

He said the middle schools can't be run with 1 administrators.

``Middle schools - you've got 700 kids, hormones flailing. When a kid is out of control, you have to have someone to hand them off to,'' Cohen said.

The draft letter to the assembly doesn't provide dollar amounts for each proposed cut. The school board's Budget Committee said line items are the school district's business.

Because of possible increases elsewhere in school expenditures, the cuts really add up to about $1.55 million, out of a total operating budget of roughly $38 million.

The Budget Committee wants to increase funding for books, equipment and classroom supplies, and lease a central office computer to replace one the manufacturer will no longer support. Funding those items, for about $250,000, added to the cuts laid out in the letter to the assembly.

And the Budget Committee has talked about adding an industrial arts teacher and more music instruction at JDHS, so six teachers would have to be laid off to achieve a net reduction of four teachers there.

A reduction as large as $1.3 million would wipe out gains Juneau made in the past two years under a new state funding formula, school officials said.

The district has added 17 teachers because of increased state funds, said schools Superintendent Gary Bader.

Six teachers also were added through grants, but four of those positions will go away next year.

Deputy Mayor MacKinnon said assembly members are frustrated the school district didn't save money from several years of early retirement programs because it hired more teachers than it lost.

But the added teachers helped reduce class sizes, especially in the lower grades, which could be a factor in higher average scores on some standardized tests, school officials said.

``This is the lowest overall pupil-teacher ratio that we have seen in the last six years,'' said Auke Bay Elementary Principal Dave Newton, speaking about his school.

Auke Bay used to have classes ranging from 25 to 29 students. Now it varies from 20 to 26 kids.

The loss of even one teacher can be a blow, and it affects more classes than people realize, principals said.

Floyd Dryden Middle School Principal Sue Clifton said her school was cut by one remedial English teacher this year, and she had to reschedule other teachers to partly fill the position.

``When we're trying to get kids to meet standards, it's really important to have that,'' Clifton said.

The draft letter to the assembly certainly paints a bleak picture.

Cutting custodians might mean reducing public access to schools for evening or weekend activities. Reducing the special education budget could jeopardize federal funding and invite lawsuits, officials said.

Cutting a central office administrator would make it hard to manage competitive grants, worth about $2.3 million a year, which fund eight teachers and three support staff.

Teacher cuts would increase class sizes by two to three students on average. More than that, it would threaten electives such as the arts and foreign languages at the middle schools and high school, officials said.

The long budget process, with its talk of layoffs, has created some anxiety among non-tenured teachers.

``They're very anxious,'' Clifton said. ``I'm anxious for them, because I have some really good teachers I don't want to lose.''

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