Arts, sports and city services on the line as Dillingham school board and city council deliberate budget
Inflation is running up costs in Dillingham’s schools. That’s according to Phil Hulett, the school district’s financial director.
“Of the $500,000 that we're showing in deficit for next year, I would say probably 90% of that is [due to] inflation,” he told the city council on Monday.
The city council and school board spent the first hour of the joint meeting discussing the school’s proposed budget. Hulett noted an increase in insurance rates, transportation, and utility costs.
Superintendent Amy Brower said the price of fuel and shipping are also up, and that without the additional funding, sports, art, band, and after-school activities will face cuts. Sports teams, for example, would have to limit their travel.
“We have a $400,000 budget in activities and that would be one of the first things that we would have to say we can't have,” she said.
The school spends two thirds of its budget on instructional costs, with the bulk of that money going toward teacher salaries. Mayor Alice Ruby pointed out that the school has fewer students than it did in years past. The student population has shrunk by 25% over the last decade, though it’s fluctuated from year to year.
Brower said the decline is not significant enough for the school to reduce its teaching staff.
“Part of the problem is we haven’t decreased enough to lose teacher units in any particular grade,” she said.
The district has received more than $7 million in grants over the past three years. Starting this year, a $2.5 million Promising Alaska Community Education grant will fund early childhood education and help with transitions between grades and after high school. A $3.2 million Mental Health Consortia grant, shared with the Lake Peninsula School district, will bring more mental health resources to the school. In 2021, the school secured a $3.4 million federal literacy grant that provides resources for improving reading. All of these grants have five year limits.
Additionally, the board announced that the district is a finalist for a Renew America Schools federal grant. This money would help fund upgrades to make facilities more energy efficient. Board members said the school would continue to apply for grants to fund activities and expand the services the school offers.
All that grant money, however, is designated for specific programs, and Hulett said the school can’t use it to fund baseline academics – something it’s continually trying to improve; last year’s standardized test scores indicated that two thirds of students in grades six - nine needed additional support in math and reading.
“The grants don’t cover a math teacher, science teacher [or] English teacher,” he said. “Grants do not allow that to happen.”
The city received a $3 million one-time school bond reimbursement from the state this year. In 2008, Dillingham voted to take out $15 million in school bond debt to pay for necessary facility repairs. For ten years, the state refunded 70% of the annual bond payment, as was its policy since the late 1970s. In 2019, Gov. Dunleavy cut that program, and for the past three years, the city was left to pay the full amount. Last year, the state afforded a one-time payment for those three missed reimbursements. Mayor Ruby said the money isn’t a windfall, and that the city had delayed paying major bills as it continued to fund the school.
“We deferred adequate increases for staff,” she said. “We deferred equipment, which is why everybody was angry we weren’t plowing roads adequately because we only had one grader because we couldn’t afford to get the second one repaired.”
Further, many business and board meetings that used to happen in Dillingham now take place elsewhere, and City Council member Kim Johnson said this shift has affected the city’s income.
“Our sales tax is down because all of the meetings, like [Bristol Bay Economic Development Corporation], they’re meeting in Anchorage, so you don’t get the bed tax. We’re not getting the sales tax,” she told the board. “The health corporation, they're moved out. [Bristol Bay Native Association’s] moved out. And so, we're not seeing the revenue like we should be.”
Johnson asked the school board to produce a list that categorizes school staff and shows how each role is funded, though without staff names. For example, the list would say how many third grade teachers the school employs and how third grade teachers, as a unit, are paid. The school board agreed to compile that list.
Johnson also asked the board about whether it had considered implementing money-saving measures that had worked in the past.
“When the district faced shortfalls, we contracted with Southwest Regional Schools. We shared a business office [and] we shared maintenance,” she said. “There were ways that the district — in order to save teachers or to fund teachers — there are some things you can do with Southwest. Have you even looked at that again?”
The city will continue to consider the proposed budget increase. The school board will meet again on April 3 and the city council will hold its next meeting on April 6.
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