Paulette Simpson: Saying ‘no’ to growth in Juneau has consequences, as chickens come home to roost at the Juneau School District

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By PAULETTE SIMPSON

Earlier this year, I zoomed in to the Juneau School Board work session about our local school district’s recently announced $10 million budget shortfall. The explanation was sobering and complicated and left little doubt about what’s coming next: endless meetings, cuts, and consolidations.

Mayor Beth Weldon has called for “creativity” but first, a reality check.

There’s never just one reason for a budget shortfall. While inflation, COVID-19, and chronic underfunding have wreaked havoc on school district budgets across the state, the primary reason for this debacle is our loss of students, the direct cause of which is Juneau’s population decline. State funding of education is directly linked to enrollment counts.

The alarm bells have been ringing for years and it was never just a School Board problem.

A front-page story in the Sept. 6, 2023, Juneau Empire reported that Juneau’s school enrollment was in freefall.

“In 1999, it was reported that there were about 5,701 students in Juneau’s schools — nearly 1,500 more students than there are today. Even today, recent enrollment forecasts looking toward enrollment in 2032 reveal an even more dire future.

According to data shared by census figures in a 2022 report, the mid-range forecast for Juneau’s district enrolled in 2032 is expected to be about 3,036 — about a 1,200-student drop from where enrollment is today.”

This means that by 2032, Juneau will have lost nearly 2,700 students – almost half of total enrollment since 1999. Then, we had two fewer school buildings than we pay to operate and maintain now.

The Juneau Economic Development Council recently published its 2023 Juneau & Southeast Alaska Economic Indicators and Outlook Report. The upshot of the report (page 36) is that Juneau’s population is “continuing the overall trend of slow decline.”

Our current School Board and Assembly were not in power when foundational economic development ideas for Juneau — two Navy ships, a re-opened AJ mine, or a road — were being considered and dismissed. Any of those three unrealized initiatives could have significantly diversified and stabilized Juneau’s economy and helped stem the population slide.

Saying “no” to growth has consequences. And that’s on us.

Juneau bet the farm on government jobs, grants and one-time appropriations. We blew off demographic reality and wasted untold sums of money chasing less serious things while simultaneously building schools for 2,700 phantom students.

Our present leaders’ unenviable task is to manage the current situation and Juneau’s “overall trend of slow decline” and not make matters worse for students and taxpayers.

The Juneau School Board is forced to make the first move. Hopefully, programmatic changes and school consolidation will not compromise educational delivery.

Two items offer some reassurance for Juneau taxpayers and students:

First, because our Assembly has over-collected both sales and property taxes, our city is sitting on nearly $40 million in reserves. CBJ also has substantial sums of money squirreled away for construction of new public buildings, two of which voters have rejected. Might those funds be “creatively” re-directed to facilitate sensible school consolidations and re-purposing of existing facilities?

Second, our current school board president, Deedie Sorensen, is ideally suited to lead our school district and community through the days ahead. Extremely competent and passionate about public education, Sorensen brings actual classroom experience (in the critical primary grades) to her leadership role. For over 40 years, she has taught hundreds of Juneau children, including mine, to read and succeed. I, for one, am willing to entrust my grandchildren’s education to her vision.

Not to be overlooked in the consolidation process is the need to preserve the integrity of our elementary school neighborhoods. If Juneau ever starts saying “yes” to foundational economic development, those school buildings could be needed in the future.

Hopefully, the Juneau Assembly will stay in its lane and do everything possible to reduce Juneau’s cost of living so more people will stay and more will want to come.

Meanwhile, we’d all be wise to keep emotional arguments, ivory tower theory, and political expediency from infecting the facility consolidation conversation.

Keep the focus on educational research, demographic and budgetary reality, and basic common sense.

Our public schools educate our electorate and our jury pool. We cannot afford to screw this up.

Paulette Simpson is a longtime resident of Douglas.

16 COMMENTS

  1. You’re dreaming. Delusional, potentially.

    You’re trusting the very people who got us here to get us out?

    CBJ will not correct course until the voters actually start voting sane people into office. This won’t happen until the economy crashes, if then.

  2. Underfunding education didn’t get us here. Dreamers with access to taxpayer pockets got us here.

    The idiots who oppose the road and are throttling tourism got us here. People not having kids got us here. Ongoing (usually successful) attempts to kill job growth got us here. Rampant crime, homelessness, and drugs got us here.

    Insane liberal policies really got us here.

    And now, in the most correct thing said by the author, chickens are roosting. Liberal chickens hatched by liberal policy eggs got us here.

    • And how would you have us do that? Construction costs alone will be at least $175 a square foot…So, not including land a modest 2000 square foot home is going to cost at least $350,000.

      Perhaps I can interest you in a tent? Either that or you can give up that low paying seasonal tourism related gig and find a real job.

  3. …to make matters worse, the Juneau Borough is exercising its power to expand the borough boundaries and include islands and towns which will include federal lands as well to add to the database for monies from the government and a broader tax base. This extreme endeavor to increase boundaries will backfire because higher taxes will throw the poor communities into chaos and expenses they are unequipped to care for. Also many native villages will be put in a bind with the federal government seeking more funds to operate their towns. And the “rural” designation for home loans is gone forever. Where will they get the money when every real estate office and the online MLS server. along with the National Brokers Association pays billions each year to lobby congress? The loan sharks in housing will win and the banks and mortgage companies will move quicker into receivership and liquidation. The home owners and banks and communities will not win. Curb the greed for more money for education and look to the future for realities to deal with in child numbers for schools and families in housing residencies that are actually long term. Past numbers are good for reporting but not for “NOW.”

  4. Growing the primary education industry isn’t the end goal, at least for local taxpayers. This is especially so when one reviews the hot debate and argument subjects of the past dozen years or so regarding schools. You might find, to your dismay, that the shrinking of primary education is a demographic relief for a growing segment of society.

  5. So… is the message to make Juneau bigger because education industry officials must be supported in the style to which they’ve become entitled, even if they accidentally got 10 million dollars in the hole?
    .
    People who don’t want to pay their fair share of 10 million to bail out their education industry are just being emotional?
    .
    And nobody better be thinking, out loud anyway, about demanding forensic audits of management and financial practices?
    .
    Productive residents don’t have enough nightmares, they need a whiff of “Our public schools educate our electorate and our jury pool.”?
    .
    Would these be the same public schools whose historically abysmal performance is documented at “nationsreportcard.gov/”?
    .
    What should be consolidated, who should be fired to fix such problems, who needs to be taxed, and for how much, to make up the 10 million dollar “shortfall”?
    .
    (‘https://www.nationsreportcard.gov/profiles/stateprofile/overview/AK?cti=PgTab_Findings&chort=2&sub=MAT&sj=AK&fs=Grade&st=MN&year=2022R3&sg=Gender%3A%20Male%20vs.%20Female&sgv=%3F&ts=Single%20Year&tss=2022R3&sfj=NP)

  6. COVID didn’t get you to this, your incompetent administration did.

    You had and still have incremental increasing funding with which to tread water through the manufactured lock down, the entire population had a theft of the PFD, no paychecks or reduced opportunities in the same time frame.

    Don’t look too all of us to fix your problem. You can do that by firing the over educated administration that performed with dismal perfection.

  7. Heheheheheh. Don’t fight them liberals Juneauites back. Just let the consequences roll out. The longer you fight these kind of liberal leaders, the longer they still think there us something worth fighting for. Let them implode which surely will come. Just let it come sooner.

    • Jen, Absolutely right, let it fall down, keep hollerin TIMBER!
      The system is irredeemable and sadly Paulette for all of her good intentions is mistaken, because the President of the School Board at this point can only rearrange the deck chairs on the sinking Titanic that is Alaska Public Education.

      Pull your Kids out of their cesspool, do it now!

  8. This article is missing a large factor. COVID protocols drove a large percentage of students out when parents found a much better alternative to online learning and masks. The State maintained the CBJ education budget at pre-COVID levels for a year and Juneau Administrators never adjusted their budget. The Juneau School Administrators probably assumed that those students would return, but their parents are probably far happier with their children’s results in their alternative education. I think that’s a large missing piece of information in the article.

  9. Thank you, Paulette for an excellent and well thought out article. It seems educators always seem to think more money is the answer. They shrink from changing boundaries and closing schools. This was done many years ago when responsible board members were the norm.

  10. “…educational research, demographic and budgetary reality, and basic common sense.”
    Now isn’t that a novel idea: smart, forward-thinking leaders instead of narcissistic blowhards… Where are they?

  11. It appears as if the school board has failed in its fiduciary responsibility–its #1 job. They should be recalled for failure. Question: If the student population has declined so drastically, then why retain excess infrastructure? Unfortunately, this school district like many other Alaska school districts is controlled by the Education Industry, including the teachers’ unions and the construction cartel. Because of this, little will change.

  12. I don’t believe Juneau’s population has declined. We have lots of traffic, Costco is always full, we have a construction boom taking place, the inventory for existing homes is very low. We have less students enrolled because parents are using alternatives. Charter schools, churches, and home schooling are growing. We have good teachers here, sadly they’re overshadowed by the bad eggs.

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