School Board demands more budget scrutiny

Administration suggests cutting 18 teaching jobs

Posted: Wednesday, March 04, 2009

The Juneau School Board did not take action on the first reading of the school district's proposed budget for the 2009-2010 fiscal year Tuesday, instead demanding more information to scrutinize district programs, positions and their justifications.

The proposed budget was largely presented to the school board as a list of line item increases and reductions measured against the current fiscal year, with a summary of the effects of each change. The core of the new budget was rolled over from the current fiscal year.

Board President Mark Choate framed it as an oversimplified approach that needs to be overhauled so the entire budget can be looked at programmatically.

"We don't deal with systemic issues, whether we're spending our money well," he said. "We have to have a mechanism to do something other than simply rolling over prior year's expenses."

Some school board members said the approach Choate suggested would yield more creative options to save money, while others suggested at least it would demonstrate the board had done its due diligence.

"What we're doing is we're balancing our budget on the backs of teachers" without having more thoroughly scrutinized the budget, board member Sally Saddler said, alluding to up to 18 teaching positions the administration has recommended cutting, among many other line items, to help make up for a budget shortfall.

Under the default budget, the district would wipe out its $1.3 million fund balance and go an estimated $2 million into the red by the end of the next budget year on June 30, 2010.

Board member Ed Flanagan said the public needs an assurance "that we've squeezed every nickel before we roll over the budget."

"At present, I don't feel we have," Choate added.

The biggest chunk of the district's new operating costs are for higher salaries and better benefits, for which $3.3 million is budgeted. That figure is subject to change, because negotiations between the school district and three unions representing school employees are ongoing.

Several district teachers, many wearing union T-shirts from the Juneau Education Association, spoke during the public comment session about their own financial hardships, increasingly demanding workloads and the district's uncompetitive salaries driving teachers from Juneau for better pay in Anchorage, the Matanuska-Susitna area and even Ketchikan.

The board tentatively scheduled a budget work session for 4:30 p.m. March 11 at Thunder Mountain High School.

"We'll plan to go until we've got our questions answered," Choate said.

The board also has a joint budget meeting with the Juneau Assembly, which directly contributes about $25 million to the district's $70 million budget, scheduled for 5 p.m. Tuesday at City Hall.

Superintendent Peggy Cowan said she agreed totally that the board needs to be thoroughly versed in the budget and said that in years past, the budget had gone through more intense scrutiny earlier on at the board level.

This year, much of that heavy lifting was tasked to four committees of volunteers. Those committees reported their recommendations to the board last month. The consensus from the committees was that the district should preserve the student-teacher ratios, though none had suggested enough cuts to balance the budgets of which they had oversight.

At press time, the board had yet to dispose of the other substantive items on its agenda, such as tougher hazing policies or a revised contract with the Juneau Community Charter School that would expand its educational offerings to include seventh grade.

• Contact reporter Jeremy Hsieh at 523-2258 or e-mail

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