Parents, educators join school board in grappling with grim budget options

Feb 9, 2016

With lawmakers weeks away from passing the state education budget, Dillingham City School District is trying to plan for good, bad, and ugly budget scenarios for FY 2017.  

About 40 people packed into the District Central Office on two nights last week to discuss the district's FY 2017 budget.
Credit KDLG

The Dillingham school board was joined by educators and parents last week to work on the district’s budget for the upcoming year.   

As KDLG’s Hannah Colton reports, passions were running high as participants discussed what’s most important to Dillingham students – and what the district can afford to do without. 

How do you divvy up money when you don’t know how much you have to work with? That’s the challenge many Alaska school districts are wrestling with now, since lawmakers are still weeks away from passing a state budget.

Dillingham Superintendent Danny Frazier says last year the school board told him they wanted to try a new budgeting strategy that seeks more public involvement. It’s called program-based budgeting.

"You take your budget assumptions, you plug them in there, and start saying 'what if?' Basically you’re playing 'what if' with the budget," explains Frazier. "I’m being asked to predict the future, so I’m trying to use more than one scenario to get us there."

Frazier has set up three “what if” scenarios. One is the “status quo” – that’s if the district could keep its current budget of about $6 million dollars. Then there’s a scenario with a 5% reduction, and finally, a whopping 10% reduction.  

Creating a school district budget in Alaska wasn’t always such a guessing game.

The legislature used to set aside a billion dollars each year to forward-fund the next year’s education expenses. But last year, in the face of a massive budget shortfall, they did away with that future education fund.

That, along with the prospect of deeper cuts this year, made for a grim task for the 40-some participants of two budget workshops last week in Dillingham.

Elementary Principal Nick Schollmeier said a 5% cut, for him, looks like losing two staff members. 

"If we have to get [to that] Draconian 10%, now we’re giving up three staff members. There’s no other way for us to get to that numbers down there. Our budget is bare bones," says Schollmeier. "I think we figured out if we cut everything that’s not a person – that’s all supplies, all travel – we get to $84,000. That doesn’t even get us close to status quo. So that’s how hard we’re feeling it down there."

The middle-high school is in the same boat – they’d have to cut two positions to get to a 5% reduction, and three positions to get to 10%.  

The district Central Office is looking at cutting back on travel and eliminating their outside payroll contractor, among other things.

With such drastic cuts on the table, many people voiced strong opinions about what should or shouldn’t be trimmed. 

High school teacher and speech/debate coach Nathan Coutsoubos advocated for cutting from extracurriculars before impacting the classroom. 

"I encourage us to find a way to keep our teaching staff here," said Coutsoubous. "We have an excellent young cohort of awesome young teachers who we’re training up the Dillingham way. We've convinced them to stay, and that's hard in Bush Alaska. I worry if we have to lose folks, how that affects our mission up there on the board."

Parent and former school board member Kim Williams would like to see cuts come first from the administrative level – including what she sees as a possible redundancy of leadership positions at the Middle/High School, and taking a hard look at benefits for those at the top.

"Our superintendent and our principals, who make upwards near $100,000 dollars, they get a housing allowance on top of the additional benefits. And to me, that's a little -- you know, I’m looking for their leadership to say, 'this is our part,'” says Williams. "And I think, even for community members, as a parent, with my kids participating in activities, I want to do my part to balance this budget. But do I want to do my part to balance the budget when I know there's somebody getting $100,000 and a $1,000-a-month housing allowance?"

Others proposed creative solutions like trying to find federal funding for certain specialized teaching positions. 

The nitty gritty details have yet to be hashed out. Superintendent Frazier says there will be more opportunities for public involvement before the school board has to turn in a balanced budget to City Council, likely April 1st.

The next school board work session is next Monday, February 15th.