Tlingit & Haida holds community conversation on Juneau School District $8M deficit

By Jasz Garrett

Above: Janice Hotch holds grandson Kurt Hotch up to watch the Tlingit Culture, Language, and Literacy Program’s students on Thursday. The program serves to strengthen the Tlingit language for present and future generations. (Photo credit Jasz Garrett)

Juneau, Alaska (KINY) – The Tlingit & Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska (Tlingit & Haida) held a community conversation Thursday on the Juneau School District’s proposed models of restructuring schools. The Juneau School District (JSD) is facing a nearly $8 million budget deficit that must be addressed for fiscal years 2024 and 2025.  

President Richard Chalyee Éesh Peterson led the community conversation panel along with JSD Superintendent Frank Hauser. Madame Mayor Beth Weldon, Assemblyman Paul Kelly, and school board members were also in attendance.

President Peterson said Juneau tribal citizen families must understand what impacts the proposed models may have on their children’s education, programs, and support services.

The community conversation opened with the sound of children singing.

The Tlingit Culture, Language, and Literacy Program (TCLL) is held through Harborview Elementary School. It serves 92 students from kindergarten through 7th grade. In a school reconfiguration models concept worksheet, TCLL’s enrollment was stated to be 75, when it is 92 including 6th and 7th grade students.

TCLL teacher Naakil.aan Hans Chester advocated for transparency from JSD.

“We’ve been asking where’s TCLL? Where’s Montessori? Where’s the charter school? We’re not just thinking about ourselves. We’re wondering what’s happening to every one of us. And we need transparency,” Chester said. “The things that are being decided have an affect on us. Maybe you don’t realize it, but we feel it. These kids feel it. They wonder what’s going to happen.”

Chester also spoke on the importance of language revitalization that occurs through TCLL.

“You’ll hear people singing their father’s songs, their grandfather’s songs, because they’re important,” he said. “They carry and embody the spirits of our ancestors, the ones who had to get in their canoes, and leave their homeland not knowing what was going to happen.”

JSD Superintendent Hauser apologized and said he is personally honored to be a superintendent who values Indigenous culture. He said there was no intention to cause fear over the future of the TCLL program. Hauser suggested potentially moving alternative programs, such as TCLL and Yaaḵoosgé Daakahídi to a vacant middle school if Floyd Dryden Middle School and Dzantik’i Heeni Middle School were to combine.  

Numerous reasons for the deficit are cited including lower-than-projected enrollment, higher-than-expected staff costs, and an end to some COVID-related and other one-time funding. But the biggest reason, Hauser said, is that the budget adopted last spring overstated district revenues by $5.9 million and understated district expenses by $2.1 million. Corrections resulted in a $7.6 million projected deficit for FY24, but it also included a deficit that was discovered during the audit for the ’22-’23 school year, bringing the total to $9.5 million. Since addressing the budget revision on Jan. 9, JSD has identified $1.65 million in reductions.

Above: JSD School Reorganization Concept Levels by grade levels. Below: Five different school reorganization models proposed by JSD. (Courtesy of JSD)

Hauser said they are still looking to identify future savings to save programs and schools. Savings would vary due to the school size adjustment in the foundation formula.

“With the magnitude of this problem, it no longer seems possible for the district to make small, targeted cuts to address this huge number,” he said. “It would take 395 $20,000 decisions, or 158 $50,000 decisions or 66 $120,000 decisions just to address the current projected deficit. Again, this isn’t even next school year. And the board is required to balance the budget for this school year, FY24, and next school year, FY25, before March 15 when it is due to the assembly.”

Hauser said the School Board presented a request to the Assembly for support in shared services for FY24 and FY25 in a meeting on Wednesday night. The Assembly’s decision is not yet final.

“The assembly has voted and is looking at and will continue to talk about through their process, supporting for this school year, close to $4 million and shared services for the school district as well as providing the school district an opportunity for a 0% interest loan which will help us balance the FY24 budget this year, which is what we need to do to help prepare and present a balanced budget for FY25,” Hauser said. “In addition to that support that the assembly has been talking about and is in the process of working through, they also had talked about and are working through support for next school year in the amount of about $1.6 million to support sharing services for the district.”

Additionally, on Jan. 12, the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development agreed that there will be no penalization or holdback of future funding. DEED has also agreed to up to a five-year plan to repay the district’s deficit.

Hauser began as Superintendent in July of 2023 after the FY24 and FY25 budgets were already set. He said he is “in an unenviable position of being new to Juneau, uncovering a difficult situation that may challenge assumptions, and delivering unwelcome news.”

After breaking down JSD’s deficit, questions were taken from the audience. The public expressed concerns about how consolidating schools would impact sports, other extra-curricular activities, and special needs students. These are all still in discussion by JSD. A recording of Tlingit & Haida’s community conversation can be found here.

The next School Board meeting is on Tuesday at the Juneau-Douglas Yadaa.at Kalé High School’s library. The budget work session begins at 4:30 p.m., and the regular meeting will begin at 6:00 p.m. Tuesday’s meetings are available on Zoom. The public can always contact the School Board by contacting the central office or emailing schoolboard@juneauschools.org.