Early school budget: Fewer kids, more money, no loss of staff

Tentative $39.33 million operating budget is up from this school year's budget of $39.02 million

Posted: Thursday, February 20, 2003

The Juneau School District anticipates fewer students next school year but is calling for a slightly larger budget and more city funds. The district wouldn't cut teachers or change the pupil-teacher ratio in staffing schools, administrators said.

On Wednesday, the School Board and district administrators presented five Juneau Assembly members and city officials with preliminary figures for a budget for fiscal year 2004, which starts July 1.

District Business Manager Gary Epperson described it as a flat-line budget, "trying to just hold on and not really increase programs."

The tentative $39.33 million operating budget is up from this school year's budget of $39.02 million. The district anticipates serving 5,457 students next school year, down from this school year's 5,511.

Because the enrollment reductions are scattered through the elementary schools, the district wouldn't cut any teachers, Epperson said.

The district will ask the city to contribute the most the state allows, known as the cap, which would be $17.86 million, up about $135,000 from this school year.

"Our cap is going to increase while our enrollment goes down," Assembly member Marc Wheeler noted.

That's because much of the city contribution is derived from the assessed value of property in Juneau, which has gone up.

In addition, in categories that don't fall under the state cap such as busing and after-school activities, the district would ask the city to spend $615,000, about $30,000 more than this school year in funds over the cap.

The district would spend all of its $900,000 in reserves and need about $215,000 in city funds above the cap to balance its budget.

"We're not holding any revenues back," Epperson said.

Deputy City Manager Donna Pierce said the district's proposed budget is "not a surprise in any way."

The city, which sets its budget two years at a time, estimated an even higher local contribution in fiscal 2004 than the district has asked for. But the city budget doesn't include funds above the cap.

"That will no doubt be the discussion," Pierce said.

The School Board is scheduled to vote on its budget March 18 and present it to the city by March 28.

But as in all years, the budget at this stage is tentative because the district doesn't know whether the Legislature will increase state school funds.

A recent study of districts operating costs, ordered by the Legislature, could be used to change the formula that sets state funds for school districts. Juneau would gain about $425,000 more in state money, which would trigger a higher maximum local contribution.

And two bills this year would change the state's per-pupil funding, giving Juneau schools an additional $615,000 or $900,000 next school year. But lawmakers simply might fold some current grants into the state's per-pupil funding, which could result in little added money for Juneau.

Sen. Kim Elton, a Juneau Democrat, said he'd be very surprised if lawmakers approve the school district cost-differential study. They have questions about its methodology, and schools in a key lawmaker's district would lose a lot of money, Elton said.

He also said it was too early to predict whether state per-pupil funding would increase.

"To some extent, we're all just sitting around waiting for the governor's budget," Elton said.

The school district also doesn't know its staffing costs, which usually are about 90 percent of its budget, because it will be negotiating new contracts for next year with unions for teachers, support staff, and administrators.

The proposed budget includes $750,000 for those employees to move up salary schedules, which reward them for increased education and experience. But the budget doesn't include money for raises to the schedules' rates. Historically, unions bargain for those increases so that employees keep up with the cost of living.

"Presumably, if there are increases from the Legislature, a portion would go to that," School Board President Chuck Cohen said.

Eric Fry can be reached at efry@juneauempire.com.

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