Different year, same story: Juneau schools wait for a budget

Juneau schools Superintendent Mark Miller is sitting at his computer and he’s about to watch the House Majority Coalition explain why representatives pushed a hurried budget through the House right before the end of the first special session.

The bill would’ve given K-12 schools the same $5,930 per student that they got last year before Gov. Bill Walker’s summer vetoes.

“We’ve been planning all the time that we were going to get full funding or flat funding of education; so we built our budget around that assumption,” Miller said

Juneau schools Superintendent Mark Miller in his office in Juneau on March 15, 2017.

Juneau schools Superintendent Mark Miller in his office in Juneau on March 15, 2017. (Photo by Jeremy Hsieh/KTOO)

The House bill also increased the amount the Legislature appropriated for student transportation last year by 8 percent.

But the House’s budget didn’t have the Senate’s support. Now, they’re back to square one deciding a budget.

The Senate proposed the same amount of transportation money as the House but unlike the House, senators tried to cut per student funding for Alaska schools by 5.7 percent.

“You know, we make our best guess,” Miller said. “We trust the Legislature will do the right thing and then we don’t get a lot of sleep until it’s all put to bed.”

If the House plan for education passes, Miller said Juneau schools will be in the same boat as last school year.

“We’re not going to be able to add much of course because we don’t have any more money,” he said.

Given Alaska’s money problems, he calls that a good deal. The cuts from the Senate would be much harder on the district.

“It will change our bottom line and if it cuts too deep and we find out that our ending fund balance will be in the red, which it can’t be, then we’ll have to take actions to stem that,” Miller said.

He isn’t sure what those actions would be.

He said the district has money left over from this last school year that can absorb a 1 percent to 2 percent cut like, a buffer.

After that, cutting staff is his last option.

“Nine out of 10 of our dollars are spent on people,” he said. “If you have to really change your bottom line, the only way you can do that is by having less people. There’s no other way.”

Miller can’t lay off teachers because they’ve already been offered contracts. He might have to try a combination of laying off about 20 non-faculty and leaving roughly 20 teaching positions unfilled if the full Senate cut passes.

That means Juneau kids would most likely have larger class sizes.

“Which means less individual attention and less differentiation,” Miller added.

Parents said keeping class sizes low was one of their top budget priorities during a district listening session earlier this year.

Miller also doubts the district would be able to pay for a planned shift to online, paperless classrooms.

This is the third year in a row that the Legislature has left schools waiting for a budget in the middle of June. Miller says each time he and his staff have had to fly blind and it doesn’t get any easier.

They started putting the district’s $87 million budget together back in January, and they sent it to the Juneau borough in March for approval. Miller said he can’t wait until July to know whether he has the money to pay for that budget.

“The ship has sailed I mean, to use the metaphor, the horse is out of the barn,” Miller said. “All of my teachers have already been given contracts; we’ve set the budget for next year; this is not the time that we can go back to the drawing board and rework budgets.”

The Legislature has until July 1, to pass a budget, or the state government will shut down. Miller will keep waiting and said he’s hoping for the best.

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