Win Gruening: Juneau School District’s financial challenges require deliberate, thoughtful response

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By WIN GRUENING

As the extent of the financial difficulties facing the Juneau School District unfolds, it’s clear that their situation did not develop overnight. For years, previous school administrators and Board of Education leadership ignored their own demographic projections and painted an unrealistic picture of future student populations.

Flat funding compounded the problem, but accounting mistakes, poor oversight and lack of planning is what got us here. Wasting time impugning the Legislature is counter-productive and blame-shifting.

Regardless, the current board is left to grapple with multi-million-dollar deficits and further declining school enrollments.  

During the January 23 the Juneau Board of Education work session, Superintendent Frank Hauser revealed that revisions to the budget reduced the total FY23 and FY24 deficit of $9.5 million to about $8 million. This still leaves the district with a combined shortfall exceeding 10% of their annual operating budget with future deficits projected at over $5 million per year.

The board is now considering a number of options:

  • – Asking the City and Borough of Juneau for a loan to zero out the current deficit and balance its budget by June 30.
  • – Asking the City and Borough of Juneau to subsidize some “shared services” in the future such as building maintenance, utilities, property insurance that presumably are not attributable to classroom instruction 
  • – Making school instructional changes that including a higher pupil-teacher ratio or a 4-day school week
  • – Implementing various school consolidation models by combining and closing schools

School instructional changes were only discussed briefly but must be considered in conjunction with whatever other short-term and long-term actions are taken. With almost 90% of the school district expenses comprised of salaries and benefits, this will need to be addressed.

The school consolidation models represent changes that would be the most impactful to students.

The principal elements of each of the models are:

  • Model 1: 7th and 8th grade students at Floyd Dryden Middle School and Dzantik’i Heeni Middle School would be combined at DHMS. Floyd Dryden could be re-purposed. 6th grade students would be kept at existing neighborhood elementary schools (K-6).
  • Model 2: Implement Model 1, plus pairing elementary schools into Grade K-3 and Grade 4-6 student bodies. 
  • Model 3: Above changes but combining high school students in grades 10-12 at Juneau-Douglas High School and grades 7, 8 & 9 at Thunder Mountain High School. Both middle schools would be repurposed.
  • Two additional models under consideration not yet finalized are variations on the above. Additional changes could be forthcoming based on community input.

Superintendent Hauser correctly stated the obvious: “Time is not on our side.” But making irreversible decisions to reduce expenses now won’t be beneficial in the long term. Therefore, Hauser initially recommended the board consider the “middle ground” Model #2 proposal. This concentrates grades K-3 into three separate elementary schools, allowing for a focused and efficient implementation of the Alaska Reads Act.

Furthermore, postponing the disposition of the high schools until after reorganization of the elementary and middle schools provides for a phased and orderly transition and perhaps nudges city leaders to consider more realistic options for their desired combined performing arts/civic center as well as a new city hall and new city museum.

There are many moving parts to this discussion. But the financial and demographic numbers mean we cannot maintain the status quo. School and city officials should be looking at the big picture on how proposed changes fit into community needs (and wants) and how school facilities owned by the city can be re-purposed to everyone’s benefit.

In a Jan. 10 Juneau Empire column, School Board President Deedie Sorensen summed up the community dilemma quite succinctly: “There can be no more invisible budget tweaks that no one notices. Student enrollment continues to decline. The city needs more real estate, the district needs less.”

She further commented that JSD has been researching ways to improve educational delivery and student outcomes for more than a year, but they must be affordable.

The current budget crisis provides that opportunity, at least for our elementary and 6th grade students.

Students, parents, and teachers will adapt if changes are planned and communicated in a timely manner.

Community members can help our school board and city leaders by supporting and engaging in the process.

After retiring as the senior vice president in charge of business banking for Key Bank in Alaska, Win Gruening became a regular opinion page columnist for the Juneau Empire. He was born and raised in Juneau and graduated from the U.S. Air Force Academy in 1970. He is involved in various local and statewide organizations.

13 COMMENTS

  1. Letter to ALL Legislators today

    It has come to my attention that Nationwide K-12 Schools spend about $20 BILLION per YEAR on DEI Training.

    The most popular is Glenn Singleton’s “Courageous Conversations,” which explicitly peddles CRITICAL RACE THEORY. Rounding out the top five is “UnboundEd” which explicitly teaches anti-white racism (insisting that there’s no such thing as a good white person). This is why the budding effort to dismantle DEI bureaucracies in higher education should be accompanied by an effort to defund DEI consultants in K-12 education directly! First, name DEI directly to send an unambiguous signal to local school administrators. Second is to task state superintendents with creating lists of vendors that are ineligible to receive state funding. The State secretary of education should be charged with creating and annually updating a list of vendors that the state will not permit its money to flow to. “Courageous Conversations obviously belongs on that list, as does “UnboundEd.” Also included, should be “Brave Talks” or “Boundless Ed.”

    I wonder how much of our statewide school budget this “training” takes up? Maybe there wouldn’t be a necessary increase in the budget after all if this were not a part of our current budget.

    I charge you with doing your due diligence to find out if our schools have these classes for Teachers and which ones are for students. I am personally aware that our Middle School/High School Students have paid travel outside in the summer to some of this training. It’s time for you all to investigate this problem within our state and take care of it once and for all.

    This can be accomplished quietly by you or your staff who would like to take on this task or not. I would like to see changes in our schools.

  2. Doesn’t ANC have the same exact problem?
    If anyone expects these ‘younger’ generations to be fruitful & multiply, they are living in a dream world.
    All these kids do is raise pets, at most.
    Perhaps we should be “re-purposing” our schools into vet clinics & doggy day cares.
    We better hurry before the Lefties fill them up w/ migrants

    • I think worse than us. At 30,000 (give or take) too many of us know the alleged leadership and can voice our issues directly to them. Often in public at Freddie’s or Superbear.

      That reins them in, a bit.

      But in the bigger picture, it’s all of Alaska. It’s too expensive for many to have kids, liberals don’t want kids, the school system is adversarial and failing.

      Add in a legislative body determined to tax is into the stratosphere, outmigration and low birth rates will continue.

  3. It’s actually a simple fix. Close some schools, downsize the school staff, and actually teach.

    I’ve favored the closure of JDHS for years. Sell it to a developer who will turn it into condos. Close all the downtown schools in general. The bulk of the remaining kids are in the Valley and on south Douglas.

    • I knew nothing about Juno except for a few nights on Franklin St when I was college age (and the Golden North Salmon Derby I fished in)
      Then we took a kid down for a State hockey tournament in Douglas & I rented a car and drove around.
      I was SO surprised you had a “Valley”! and conservatives …..who knew?

      • There aren’t many of us, and we tend to meet at midnight by the glacier.

        We read passages from the Federalist papers, light red/white/blue candles, and wonder how so many people forgot the lessons of St Reagan the Wise.

    • I loved roaming around the Capitol.
      Each floor w/ a different theme ….. interesting building
      Then I went into a late night ‘session’ and immediately fell asleep …lol.
      I don’t know if you could pay me enough to listen to that snooze fest on a daily basis …. brutal.

  4. Shocked to read the one option #2 by Gruening. The very same effort that caused the five out of seven school board members to be recalled. The purpose then was to address the failing and struggling readers (math) understanding that one learns to read K-3 and read to learn 4th beyond. The intent was not to address funding,
    rather the struggling and failing students, The thought being to corral all the k-3 students in the district and house them in one central school, select a proven phonic certified curriculum with a history of success, train the staff in that curriculum and pray we could end or address the success of exiting the 3third grade students.
    Teacher union and allied PTA put a stop to the thought and today, years later, status quo,with the effect of failing student population.
    So it goes and then on a parallel topic, just you wait till the “Defined Benefits” legislation passes, you will think “In the Hole”

  5. AS 14.03.030 indicates that students in Alaska WILL attend school 180 days a year. While a four day week is possible it might be pretty difficult to still get the 180 in school days if the students only attend four days a week.

    AS far as borrowing funds from CBJ: Sure the voters will be glad to ‘loan’ the money…IF you can show enough income to repay it..And JSD cannot.

    The Superintendent hinted at the only viable option but lacked the stones to say it out loud: unload Either JDHS or THMS and consolidate the students.

    • CBJ will probably do what they do best. Ignore the expressed will of the people.
      But we keep voting them back in, so we’ve taught them tpits ok to ignore us.

  6. Everything that happens in Juneau is a financial trainwreck. Holding legislative sessions in Juneau rewards incompetence. That Juneau’s K-12 has been incompetently managed should be expected.

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