With education a hot button issue in the ongoing budget debate, one school in Sitka is definitely safe this fiscal year. The state-run Mt. Edgecumbe High School will continue to receive $4.6 million from the Department of Education and Early Development. That money goes directly towards boarding over 400 students from around the state.
Dionne Brady is a social studies teacher and a Mt. Edgecumbe alumna, class of 1991. She was surprised in February when Mt. Edgecumbe came up as the House Finance Subcommittee discussed education cuts.
The conversation, led by Rep. Lynn Gattis (R-Wasilla), was about how much the school cost the state. As Brady put it, the underlying question for many teachers and students was “whether or not Mt. Edgecumbe is even needed anymore, at all.”
Brady said her first reaction was denial.
“Even as a government teacher who should have been more aware of the possibility that state revenue, that’s so dependent on oil, would decrease, that this school might not exist forever, never occurred to me,” Brady says. “I’ll confess that my second — because it’s like a second home to me — my second reaction was anger.
Brady took to the Friends of Mt. Edgecumbe Facebook page, which has almost 1000 followers. A network of alumni around the state began making phone calls, writing letters to legislators and uploading photos of themselves with Braves sweatshirts and hats. Their colors are maroon and gold. Brady says it was a springboard point for lessons in her class, to “kind of show students how the government works and how the budget process works.”
“Underclassmen who definitely knew they wanted to continue their education at Mt. Edgecumbe were very worried at that time,” Brady says. “I think this just sort of validated what we’ve been telling them. That it’s not an inalienable right for Mt. Edgecumbe to exist. In fact, we live in a fishbowl with people always trying to see whether Mt. Edgecumbe is doing the job it’s kept open in order to do.”
According to the administration, what the school is trying to do is provide an educational alternative for students around the state, some in rural places with fewer opportunities.
Ayla Reynolds is a new student from Savoonga, an island in the Bering Sea.
“It’s a big world out there. There’s a lot of stuff to do than stay at home on an island,” Reynolds says. “It’s the same old routine every day on an island. I couldn’t envision how it was going to be [at Mt. Edgecumbe] because it’s a new adventure.”
Superintendent Bill Hutton says he’s relieved the funding will continue, but with one major hitch: it may not be enough this year to cover the rising cost of operating the boarding school. Contracts for dorms and food service, as well as personnel costs are up.
“And with flat funding, flat sounds like it’s perfect, but really we have incremental increases in expenditures,” Hutton says. “We have to cut in order to be prepared for those.”
Another major concern for Hutton is how much money the school receives from the legislature for each student. The legislature proposed a cut of 1.1% to the foundation funding; that translates into $46,000 less for Mt. Edgecumbe. If that figure survives the special session, it will leave the school, and likely many others, with a deficit.
“As of right now, we’re about $220,000 short for next year,” Hutton says. The school’s annual budget is $10 million, with 45% coming from the legislature, 45% from the EED and 10% from grants.
To prepare, Hutton is planning to purchases a minimum amount of school supplies, reduce travel for student activities, reduce dual-credit programs with the University of Alaska Southeast and keep two and a half open teaching positions empty. Still, much is up in the air.
Hutton’s experience speaks to the odd situation many superintendents find themselves in as they await the final budget — to plan for a financial future with a foggy crystal ball.