By Melinda Munson

In the second of three readings of the 2023 budget on Nov. 17, the assembly abolished the proposed 1.00 mill increase and slated an additional $500,000 for Skagway School. The $500,000 is on top of funding the school to the cap at $2.3 million, but is over half a million less than Skagway School wanted to cover current programs, such as student activities, food service, Spanish, preschool, vocational technology and music.

Prior to the budget’s first reading, Borough Manager Brad Ryan was directed by the assembly to find a way to fund the additional $1.1 million the school requested. Ryan found the funds, in part, by eliminating one of the provider positions at the clinic and increasing property taxes by $300 on a $400,000 home.

Those measures didn’t appear palatale to many assembly members.

Mayor Andrew Cremata questioned Skagway School Superintendent Josh Coughran at the Nov. 17 meeting.

“And I did notice that there was a lot of talk about the potential for jobs to be cut,” Cremata said, referencing the Oct. 26 budget meeting. “Never once was it mentioned that the activities budget would be cut.”

“My intent was to let you know, and just to make it public, that the programs that are represented by those special revenue funds do have considerable staffing,” Coughran responded. “…at the end of the day, like you said, the municipality is going to write a check. And the school board is going to react to that, and we’re going to do what’s best for our kids, we’re going to try and maintain our programs … And so to be clear, and to be on the record, nothing is on the chopping block right now.” 

Coughran explained why the school didn’t ask for more money in 2021. “Last year, we took from our internal special revenue funds, realizing that the municipality was probably in a rough spot financially, with COVID and no ships…” he said.

Coughran stated this year, he was instructed by the school board to  “represent what these programs cost.”

“You mentioned an exploding school budget,” Coughran said. “I don’t necessarily think I would characterize it that way. I would say that it’s certainly increased. But what else has increased is our student population. We have now gone through our count period. And the number of students we have in school from kindergarten through twelfth grade is 147.7. We haven’t had that number since 1992, 1993. And I’ve heard a number of times at this table … everybody’s leaving, everybody’s leaving. The inverse is true at the school. And I think it’s in large part because of these programs. And because of what we’re able to offer kids and like it or not, that costs money.”

Assemblymember Reba Hylton noted the $1.1 million the school has in reserves.

“We’re going to discuss taking out a loan later,” she said. “So, I don’t feel comfortable allocating this much funding towards any department that has got funds to fund themselves…”

“I saw that Sitka funds above the cap, over a million dollars, just over a million dollars, pretty much what the Skagway School is asking. But they also have almost exactly 1,000 more students than we do,” Hylton said. 

Assemblymember Dan Henry took exception to the body’s questions.

“…one of the last things I ever wanted to do from this table is micromanage the school, or the clinic. And either I have faith in who my superintendent is, and who my school board and staff is, or I don’t … that would be the only challenge I would find with the budget … Do we have the money or don’t we?”

Cremata referenced the municipality’s financial declaration of emergency. 

“…just to remind everybody at the table, we are in an economic emergency,” he said.

Assemblymember Deb Potter suggested giving the school $500,000, which combined with the roughly $290,000 the school had pledged from its reserves, would equal what the activities programs cost the district last year.

Assemblymember Henry was the sole no vote for the $500,000 amendment.

The school announced this month that Skagway students ranked higher than any district in the state (in terms of percentage of students either proficient or advanced) in all three AK Star assessment areas: English language arts, math and science.

The third and final budget reading will occur Dec. 1.