New state money spares teacher cuts, covers retirement funds

$3.1 million allocated to maintain the current student-teacher ratio

Posted: Thursday, May 20, 2004

New state funding for education means the Juneau School District won't lay off teachers next school year for lack of money.

After an executive session about union negotiations Tuesday, the Juneau School Board directed Superintendent Peggy Cowan to use part of the new funding of $3.1 million to maintain the current ratio of students to teachers for next school year.

The new funds also will cover an increase in the district's required contribution to employee retirement funds.

Those items would cost about $2.38 million, according to the district. With the new state funds, the district's total operating budget is about $42.3 million.

The district had planned to lay off 26 teachers, partly because of declining enrollment and partly to help close a budget deficit next school year. The cuts would have raised the ratio of students to teachers.

Even with the extra state money, the district likely will employ about nine fewer teachers next school year because it expects about 90 fewer students. Officials are hopeful the staff will be reduced by retirements and resignations, so layoffs won't be needed.

A big unknown in next year's budget is personnel costs. The district is negotiating new contracts with all three unions this year. The district and teachers, who are at impasse, have scheduled a mediation for May 26. The district has set negotiations with support staff and unionized administrators for June.

Teachers are waiting to see what money will be on the table. They've asked for raises and more money for health insurance premiums.

"We feel that there's money in the budget, even without the new funding, for teachers," said Molly Box, spokeswoman for the Juneau Education Association, the teachers' union.

The School Board on Tuesday also directed Cowan to ask the Juneau Assembly for more money. The city previously agreed to give the schools $18.15 million, which represented the most it could give under the state's school-funding formula at the time.

But when the Legislature last week increased state education funding by $82 million statewide, it also increased the amount that cities can give to schools. It's commonly called the cap.

In Juneau, the new state funds raised the local cap by nearly $713,000. City officials have said the city, facing a budget deficit of about $2 million, can't afford to give that. City Manager Rod Swope said Wednesday that nothing has changed in the city's inability to fund up to the new cap.

The School Board has scheduled a special meeting for 6 p.m. May 27 to discuss other possible changes to next school year's budget because of the new state funding.

Without more city funding, the district still will have to cut next school year's budget, Cowan said.

Aside from the teacher cuts, the district built a budget for next school year on reductions in bus routes, activity funds and summer custodial hours, as well as eliminating the truancy officer and other reductions.

Among the budget issues for the School Board will be whether the district should set aside reserve funds. The administration has recommended creating a reserve of at least $600,000, Cowan said.

The purpose is to account for any unexpected expenses next year, and to have more money for two school years from now, when the district's contribution to retirement funds goes up even more, she said.

Mary Hakala, a parent who helped spearhead citizen lobbying efforts to get more state education funding, warned the School Board on Tuesday that it would be hard to ask the Assembly for more money if there is a reserve fund.

Hakala, a member of the Juneau-based lobbying group Alaska Kids Count, said it intends to lobby the Assembly to fund up to the new cap.

But, she added, "We will not be staunch advocates if the money we worked so hard to get is put into a savings account for next year."

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