School administration’s budget favors bigger class sizes, fewer teachers

Tuesday night's Board of Education meeting had a packed audience. (Photo by Lisa Phu/KTOO)

Tuesday night’s Board of Education meeting had a packed audience. (Photo by Lisa Phu/KTOO)

The Juneau School District administration has ignored recommendations by the budget advisory committee to keep class sizes small and delay a new language arts curriculum.

At Tuesday night’s Board of Education meeting, Superintendent Glenn Gelbrich said the goal of the administration’s proposed budget is to increase student achievement.

“Whether we’re looking at percentage of students who graduate, numbers of students who are proficient in international standards, attendance rates – in any of those factors and more, we want more of our kids to be successful as time goes by,” Gelbrich explained. 

The administration’s budget proposes cutting nearly 20 teaching positions and increasing class sizes by three students across all grade levels. A third grade teacher would have 30 students in a class, instead of 27. High school classes would grow to more than 31.

The proposed budget also adds a new elementary language arts curriculum, but postpones a secondary math program.

“Like the budget committee, we did one of the easy things, which was to move $400,000 out of the budget for the secondary math materials based on the recommendation of that committee,” Gelbrich said.

Budget committee member Michelle Norman was upset that only one of its recommendations was implemented. She questioned the purpose of the committee if the board plans to just pass the administration’s budget.

“If it is the belief by this board that they and the school district administrators know best, then the process I just participated in was for show and nothing more,” Norman said.

Auke Bay Elementary School teacher JoAnn Jones urged the board to implement more of the budget committee recommendations.

“I want to ask you to honor the hard work that the budget committee did. These members listened for many months. They asked hard questions that you didn’t ask and they gave you recommendations for budget cuts and add backs. I want you to listen to them,” she said.

In the fight between small classes versus new curriculum, school board member Barbara Thurston said budget committee members didn’t explain how small class sizes would improve student achievement. On the other hand, she said public testimony in favor of new curriculum did.

“If I have to pick, I’m going to lean towards something that all the evidence I’ve seen and all the testimony we’ve received is likely to increase achievement. And at the moment, for the elementary, I think that’s probably the curriculum,” she said. 

If the Alaska State Legislature increases school funding, the administration plans to add back some items reduced from the budget and would decrease class sizes. Several bills before lawmakers would raise the base student allocation, the amount districts get from the state for each enrolled student.

The school board will hold another hearing on the budget and take public testimony during a special meeting on March 25.

(Editor’s note: A reference to a per pupil funding term has been corrected. The term is “base student allocation,” not “Base School Allocation.”)