The Juneau School Board will take another look at its plan to add a counselor at each middle school and Juneau-Douglas High School.
The board, meeting Tuesday, adopted a revised budget except for those three positions. The latest operating budget for next school year, at $44 million, includes about $3.1 million more in state funding and nearly $678,000 more in city funds than the district originally planned on.
The Legislature increased state funds for schools, triggering a higher maximum that cities can give. The Juneau Assembly on June 9 agreed to give all but $35,000 of the new cap.
The School Board said in late May it would use the additional city funds to hire three new counselors and two teachers, and to help fund new contracts with its three unions.
The teaching positions would be held in reserve and used at grade levels that had enrollment bulges, the district said at the time. The counselors would help reduce the dropout rate, board members said. About a third of JDHS freshmen don't graduate.
The new positions come at a time when the district expects to eliminate 8.5 teaching positions because of declining enrollments. To be cut are the equivalent of one teaching position at JDHS, two at Dzantik'i Heeni Middle School, and one at each elementary school, except for Gastineau, which would lose half a position.
On Tuesday, School Board member Andi Story said the district should use the new counseling positions in a way it thinks would best help reduce the dropout rate. The board asked the administration to talk to school staff members about the positions.
In an interview, Story referred to the five new positions and said they could be used districtwide to lower class sizes and add electives, both of which could help keep students in school.
"I want to ask the staff how they can see best how to help the dropout rate, because they do have expertise," she said.
Story noted that next school year JDHS teachers will mentor 15 to 20 students each, providing a type of academic counseling.
Superintendent Peggy Cowan said district administrators will talk with principals and counselors about how to use the three positions that had been described originally as counselors. The positions would be used in the middle schools and JDHS to target the dropout rate, she said, and counselors are one of the options.
JDHS, with about 1,600 students, has four counselors. The two middle schools, with about 700 students each, have one counselor apiece.
Sally Donaldson, the counselor at Dzantik'i Heeni Middle School, said professional counseling associations consider a ratio of one counselor to every 250 middle school students to be ideal.
"I think adding another counselor would be really beneficial," she said. "It's difficult for us in the middle schools and high school to reach all of our kids because we have such high numbers."
Counselors can help prevent dropouts by paying close attention to students' academic and social needs, she said.
School Board member Bob Van Slyke said Tuesday he wasn't sure how it would "go across" for the board to do something different with the funds than what it had told the Assembly.
Mayor Bruce Botelho said the Assembly's role is to appropriate funds and the School Board's role is to spend them.
"If, in their judgment, they think it should be allocated in a different way, the Assembly's not going to second-guess that. At least, I certainly am not," Botelho said.
But Botelho added that the Assembly's relationship with the School Board is based on trust.
"To the extent the School Board will again seek funding to the maximum and it will be used in a particular way, it's on that basis that we make decisions," he said.
Mary Hakala, a Juneau parent who helped spearhead the education lobbying group Alaska Kids Count, said the School Board should look at the best way to alleviate the dropout rate.
But, she told the board Tuesday, "I think it is absolutely critical that whatever is determined that it be clearly conveyed to the Assembly and the public where every penny goes to."
Eric Fry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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