Dillingham City Council yet to decide on education funding as it weighs other city needs
The Dillingham City Council and school district have been in the throes of budgeting for next fiscal year. Over almost hour of public testimony at the last city council meeting, people supported increasing the education budget from $1.4 to $1.7 million, but some city officials are concerned about funding other municipal projects.
Read the full April 6 meeting packet here
Christina McDermott: The Dillingham City Council held a workshop and a regular meeting last night. For more we have KDLG's Izzy Ross here. Hi, Izzy.
Izzy Ross: Hi, Christina.
McDermott: So a lot of people were anticipating a decision on the school budget last night. Each year the city funds the school at $1.3 million, which is actually well above the state's requirements. But with inflation, especially in recent years, the money doesn't stretch as far as it used to, and the school has asked the city for $400,000 more for the next school year. What happened with that?
Ross: So the council failed to pass a resolution that established the city's funding for the school for next fiscal year. They plan to hold a special meeting in a couple of weeks to make that decision. But we can take a look at what they did do last night.
The city council workshop specifically dealt with the question of school funding. The number on hand was $1.4 million — that is $100,000 above the amount allocated, as you mentioned, over the past 10 years or so. There was a lot of back and forth during both the workshop and the meeting and the city council was fairly evenly split on what to do. Some were in support of the $1.7 million the school was asking for. Others wanted to fund it at $1.4 million for now, and then in the next couple of weeks see what the budget process on the city side looked like and whether there was additional school funding to be found.
Right now the city does have a lot of expenses; the landfill, erosion control, the harbor, new equipment, providing matching funds for federal funding. Mayor Alice Ruby did encourage the city council to fund the school at $1.4 million for now and revisit it as they develop the city's budget in the coming weeks. City officials also said that the city hasn't been able to complete some major projects in recent years, and those are things they'll have to tackle soon. But on the other hand, both Superintendent Amy Brower and Phil Hulett, the district's financial director, talked about how inflation has hurt the school's budget. Here's Hulett talking about chartering a plane for school band members to go to Unalakleet.
Phil Hulett: "So to charter a plane from here to Unalakleet, last year it was around about $18- $20,000. To charter a plane this year, it's upwards of $30- $35,000. Inflation hurts us in every aspect."
Ross: During the city council meeting, a lot of people testified — members of the public including parents and school staff, teachers, administration. Erica Tweet, an elementary school teacher and a coach, said cuts to the extracurricular activities would have a ripple effect throughout the community.
Erica Tweet: These events that are provided by the school with extracurricular activities are vital for us just as community members that live here. We thrive on the sports games, we are now thriving on this incredible music program. To lose these things will impact our entire community. And I'd like people to really think about that. It's not just our students, it's our entire town.
Ross: Other teachers and members of the public who testified, including parents, pointed out that for a lot of students, things like sports, music, art, motivate them to go to school and help them do better academically and in general.
McDermott: All right, so how did the city council respond?
Ross: So city council members said they appreciated that people took the time to come in and give them feedback. Some also mentioned that they themselves were alumni of the school district. But the testimony didn't seem to sway anyone's opinion substantially. Council member Kim Johnson supported the $1.4 million in funding, because she wants to take additional time for the city to figure out the budget. And she also wants to wait for the state legislature to see what that funding from the state is for the base student allocation. She said she heard from House District 37 Representative Bryce Edgmon's office that the one time funding for the BSA next year could be over $700,000.
Kim Johnson: There will be some negotiations with the Senate. But I have great hope that we're going to see some money outside of just the base student allocation and one-time stopgap funding. And that's what I want to see, because I think that'll help us make our decision.
McDermott: So when the city talks about these things they need to take care of and projects, what exactly are they talking about?
Ross: You know, I think there's a lot we've heard this, you know, again and again, from city councilmembers and also from the mayor that the city has really put a lot of projects on hold, not necessarily just because they were funding the school, but that's part of it. And Mayor Ruby pointed out that the city is responsible for all of these other services in town, and that while they've provided adequate funding for the school, it's been at a sometimes painful cost to other services over the last few years.
Alice Ruby: You know, the last few years during COVID, we held the school's funding stable. The city took a hit at least two years in a row to make sure the school got the funding that we could afford while the city had a grater that didn't operate. We didn't have enough police officers. We didn't have public works staff. But we held the school stable.
Ross: Other projects include matching [a percentage of] $5 million in federal funding to plan for what to do for erosion around Snag Point, things like that, that they're just trying to tackle. There's some issues at the landfill that I think a lot of folks are aware of — several landfill fires over the years — that the city is trying to deal with. New equipment upgrades as well. A few councilmembers, like Perry Abrams, echoed those concerns, pointing out that the city has also given more than required by the state, and Abrams said they needed to look further down the line than just the next year or two.
Perry Abrams: Our pay scales for the rest of our city employees aren't up to snuff. It is very — as it was brought up, it's very difficult to live here and we have a hard time filling positions. Our housing issue is detrimental. And I think if we don't get that fixed, no amount of funding to the school is going to fix the housing issue. We have got to free up some land and get some housing.
Ross: But other councilmembers, like Curt Armstrong, were more flexible in the city's budget process and what they thought they should do.
Curt Armstrong: I can go anywhere from $1.4 - $1.7 [milion]. I think the 1.7 is not out of our means. And I'm not sure that waiting a couple of months is going to really change the picture too much of what we have today.
Ross: So that motion to increase the funding to $1.7 [million] failed two to three; councilmembers Kim Johnson, Kaleb Westfall and Perry Abrams voted no. Michael Bennett and Curt Armstrong voted yes. The council also failed to pass the $1.4 million in funding. So instead, they're going to hold a special meeting to decide exactly how much they should fund the school. That special meeting will be on April 17 at 7:30 p.m. And that's where the situation stands right now.
McDermott: All right. Thanks for all the details. That's the update with the school, kind of wait-and-see mode. What else was on the docket?
Ross: Sure, so everything else went pretty rapidly. The school discussion definitely took up the bulk of the meeting, which was about two hours long. The council unanimously passed all the other resolutions on the agenda. That included one to support the school district in pursuing a solar energy project. It also included contracting a company to conduct a best practices review of the Dillingham Police Department. And the council also formally accepted $5 million in congressionally directed funds to put, as mentioned, towards those mitigation efforts for erosion at Snag Point secured by Sen. Lisa Murkowski.
In the meeting packet, Acting Police Chief Craig Maines also reported that the department would like to double the number of patrol officers. He submitted a growth plan to do so. And Maines also reported that the jail is open and has been running smoothly. That was something that, back in September, folks were concerned about because there weren't enough staff at the police department to keep the jail open all the time. And the city's also starting to work with a contractor to assess its housing needs so there's something concrete for them to aim for with new projects.
McDermott: Alright. And there have been some personnel changes at city hall, right?
Ross: That's right. So Councilmember Perry Abrams told the city last month that he's going to be stepping down from his seat on June 1, the city has to fill that seat within 45 days. And former city clerk Lori Goodell is now in the position of acting city manager [while City Manager] Robert Mawson has been dealing with health issues. And Greta Hayden-Pless is now the acting city clerk.
McDermott: Okay, well, I'm looking forward to hearing more soon. Thank you, Izzy.
Ross: Thanks so much, Christina.
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