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Unalaska school district reaches into reserves as enrollment drops

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Berett Wilber
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Berett Wilber
The district’s projected budget is just over $8 million – a less than 2% increase from this year's revised budget. In total, the school is requesting roughly $5 million from the city. That’s around 6.5% more than the city’s contribution from fiscal year 2022.

While Alaska’s lawmakers consider increasing public school funding, the Unalaska City School District prepares for a significant decrease in revenue due to a drop in enrollment. And with that, the district is looking to the city for about $5 million to cover its budget for fiscal year 2023.

At a City Council meeting Tuesday, Superintendent Robbie Swint Jr. presented the Unalaska City School District’s proposed budget, which is based on an estimated enrollment of 345 students.

Last year, there were about 350 kids attending school on the island. That was down from 2019 when the district saw a record high enrollment of more than 420 students.

“Enrollment has continued to decrease,” Swint said. “Some of this was due to COVID, but the district is hearing from families that it’s too expensive to travel to and from Anchorage since the loss of Alaska Airlines miles.”

Many Unalaskans had relied on Alaska's mileage sharing program to lessen the financial sting of purchasing round-trip tickets to Anchorage, which can cost more than $1,000 per person. That option disappeared after a fatal plane crash at Unalaska’s Tom Madsen Airport in October 2019.

Swint said the district’s budget committee also cited the lack of affordable and stable air service as a cause for dropping enrollment during its meetings earlier this year. Committee members also want to see Unalaska’s classrooms remain small, and for the district to provide additional support and programs for students, particularly those who have fallen behind in the wake of the pandemic, he said.

UCSD former business manager Danielle Whittern said at the council meeting fewer students will mean less funding from the state, which will have to come from somewhere else, especially if the district plans to keep student and teacher ratios low.

“There's about $330,000 less that we're getting from the state from last year,” Whittern said. “And so that is something that we've tried to make up also.”

The projected amount of money the state will give for each student for the upcoming fiscal year is $5,930. That base student allocation fluctuates for each district based on a formula that accounts for schools’ unique costs. But the starting amount of just under $6,000 has remained flat since 2017.

There are two bills in the state house that could change that and increase the state’s contribution: HB 272 and HB 273. Still, the district is building its budget assuming the base student allocation remains where it’s currently at.

The district’s projected budget is just over $8 million – a less than 2% increase from this year's revised budget. In total, the school is requesting roughly $5 million from the city. That’s around 6.5% more than the city’s contribution from fiscal year 2022.

Still, the projected budget has a deficit of roughly $230,000. That is largely due to trying to combat learning losses from the pandemic, while fighting to keep the budget status quo despite inflation, according to Whittern.

But the district has filled some of that funding gap with federal COVID money, she said.

“Over the years, the district was only allowed to keep 10%, but they have waived that due to COVID, and that's how the fund balance increased,” Whittern said. “And so these deficits are helping bring us back down, so when that [10% cutoff] comes back in maybe FY 24, or FY 25, we’ll be back in line where the district also needs to be.”

At the meeting, Superintendent Swint urged councilors to consider the district’s value to the community as they deliberate on how much money the city will contribute.

“The quality of our town has decreased after airline changes and [as] the cost of living continues to increase,” he said. “The school is the heart of our community. One of the few remaining recruiting tools to encourage families to move or stay in Unalaska.”

The City Council plans to vote on the school’s budget at its meeting on April 26.

Hailing from Southwest Washington, Maggie moved to Unalaska in 2019. She's dabbled in independent print journalism in Oregon and completed her Master of Arts in English Studies at Western Washington University — where she also taught Rhetoric and Composition courses.
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