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Unalaska school officials propose modest budget despite possible state funding increases

Maggie Nelson
The district’s FY24 budget comes in at just under $8.2 million carrying a deficit of nearly $175,000.

State legislators are discussing increasing student funding, leaving a lot up in the air for school districts around Alaska as they prepare their budgets for the upcoming fiscal year.

In Unalaska, district officials are playing it safe — anticipating small increases to state funding and planning for some cuts to staff.

At a recent board meeting, Superintendent Jim Wilson presented a first reading of the district’s FY24 budget and applauded the committee for making significant reductions this year.

“To reduce expenditures by almost 3% in a time of 10 to 12% inflation and rising labor costs was a tremendous accomplishment,” he said.

The committee decided to reduce the budget by more than $900,000, putting expenditures at the lowest they’ve been since FY21, according to Wilson.

Reductions include roughly $700,000 in cuts to labor, which is the district’s biggest operating cost and takes up more than 40% of the budget. Part of that reduction comes from several teachers leaving the island. As senior educators leave, newer, less experienced ones enter the district, which means lower salary costs for the schools.

But committee members are also hoping to cut some positions. There will be two fewer classroom teachers, no assistant principal and maintenance work will be shared among staff to reduce full-time salaries.

Technically, one classroom teacher will be shifting to work in the Special Education Department — an area that is in need of extra attention, Wilson said.

“We saw tremendously increasing special education numbers — very high burnout in our department,” he said. “A normal caseload, I'm gonna say is 15 up to 20, just a shot in the dark. We have our special ed teacher at the elementary school approaching 30.”

Wilson said it’s not easy to make these kinds of changes “because it has a direct impact on the classroom.”

Another big cost for the district is insurance, which makes up almost 30% of the overall budget.

“We've seen a 28% increase from FY 21 to FY 23,” Wilson said. “That's a monster. We've seen $500,000 just in insurance increases.”

Unalaska schools provide free full-family insurance to their educators, which is a major selling point for recruiting and retaining teachers on the island.

Wilson — who has been with the district for more than two decades — said members of this year’s budget committee had a particularly rough task ahead of them. One of the big changes for the island and a major hurdle for committee members this year: the internet.

“All of a sudden, we went from basically dial-up speeds, to fiber, there’s Starlink — there's all these other things that didn't exist,” Wilson said.

Late last year — and for the first time ever — Unalaskans got access to high-speed internet through a new fiber cable and satellite systems. The island also welcomed a second commercial airline. Wilson said he hasn’t seen competition on Unalaska’s runway since he moved to the island more than twenty years ago.

Wilson told school board members those changes will likely have an impact on student numbers, revenue and expenditures, but it’s tough to say how the impacts will actually take shape, especially coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I think the committee had a very difficult challenge in front of them in terms of predicting enrollment,” he said. “I think they did a great job. They looked at those past trends. They discussed what they thought those anticipated trends might be moving forward.”

The committee built this budget around a predicted status quo enrollment of 346 students.

The state gives funding to schools based on student population. It’s called the base student allocation or BSA. And this year, it’s possible that number could go up — by $1000 per student or possibly more. That would be the highest single-year increase in the state’s history.

Still, Wilson said this draft plays it safe and anticipates just a $30 increase per student, which is based on legislation that has already passed.

With that state estimate and anticipation of full funding from the city, the district’s budget comes in at just under $8.2 million carrying a deficit of nearly $175,000. But with a roughly $900,000 fund balance, Wilson reassured board members that the district has more than enough funding to cover that.

This year, administration is also suggesting adding a fourth category to the district’s special revenue funds. Those categories allow the school to ask for more money from the city than the maximum amount allowed by the state.

The categories vary by district. In Unalaska, they include food services, preschool and community schools. And for the upcoming fiscal year, the district will propose a new category: student activities.

“The committee had great discussions about what it means for students to be able to experience life off of this island, to be able to interact with other students, to be able to learn to be independent — just all of those things that student activities teach kids,” Wilson said.

He said the student activities budget has been in need of a boost for years, as it hasn’t increased in at least a decade. This year, the district also saw a 41% increase in travel costs for that category. In order to meet the budget, fewer students have been allowed to travel for events and participants had to fundraise more than $150,000, according to Wilson.

“I don't believe our coaches have the energy to continue to fundraise that much. I'm not sure that our kids have the energy to continue to fundraise that much,” he said. “So unless something changes, we will see significant changes to student activities next year.”

The district will be asking the city for full funding for this budget, which is a common practice. That comes in at almost $5.5 million with the special revenue fund requests — that includes an additional $140,000 ask for student activities.

The proposed FY24 budget is about 2.6% lower than this year’s revised budget. As of now, that revised budget has a deficit of about $430,000 due to increases in energy costs and teacher salaries, as well as enrollment drops. That exact number won’t be finalized until the end of this fiscal year.

While Wilson will be retiring at the end of the academic year, he said he’s optimistic that there will be some kind of increase to the BSA, helping move the next budget out of the red and into a surplus.

The Unalaska School Board will hear a final reading of the budget at its meeting, March 22. The budget will be presented to City Council members, Tuesday, Apr. 11.

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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