With education a hot button issue in the ongoing budget debate, one school in Sitka is definitely safe this fiscal year. The state-run Mt. Edgecumbe High School will continue to receive $4.6 million from the Department of Education and Early Development (EED). That money goes directly towards boarding over 400 students from around the state.
Dionne Brady is a Mt. Edgecumbe alumna. Class of 1991. Back in February, when the House Finance Subcommittee was talking about what cuts could be made to education, she was surprised that Mt. Edgecumbe came up. The conversation, led by Representative Lynn Gattis of Wasilla, asked how much the school cost the state. But as Brady put it, the underlying question for many teachers and students was “whether or not Mt. Edgecumbe is even needed anymore, at all.”
Brady is a social studies teacher and she said her first reaction was denial. “Even as a government teacher who should have been more aware of the possibility that state revenue that’s so dependent on oil would decrease, that this school might not exist forever never occurred to me. I’ll confess that my second – because it’s like a second home to me – my second reaction was anger.
Brady took to the Friends of Mt. Edgecumbe Facebook page, which has almost 1000 followers. A network of alumni around the state began making phone calls, writing letters to legislators, and uploading photos of themselves with Braves sweatshirts and hats. Their colors are maroon and gold. Brady said it was a springboard point for lessons in her class, to “kind of show students how the government works and how the budget process works.”
“Underclassmen who definitely knew they wanted to continue their education at Mt. Edgecumbe were very worried at that time,” said Brady. “I think this just sort of validated what we’ve been telling them. That it’s not not an inalienable right for Mt. Edgecumbe to exist. In fact, we live in a fishbowl with people always trying to see whether Mt. Edgecumbe is doing the job it’s kept open in order to do.”
And according to the administration, what the school is trying to do is provide an educational alternative for students around the state, some in rural places with less opportunities. Ayla Reynolds is a new student I met at the beginning of the school year. She’s from Savoonga, an island in the Bering Sea.
“It’s a big world out there. There’s a lot of stuff to do than stay at home on an island,” said Reynolds. “It’s the same old routine every day on an island. I couldn’t envision how it was going to be [at Mt. Edgecumbe] because it’s a new adventure.”
Superintendent Bill Hutton said he’s relieved the funding will continue, but with one major hitch: it may not be enough this year to cover the rising cost of operating the boarding school. Contracts for dorms and food service, as well as personnel costs, are up.
“And with flat funding – flat sounds like it’s perfect, but really we have incremental increases in expenditures,” said Hutton. “We have to cut in order to be prepared for those.”
Also of major concern for Hutton is how much money the school receives from the legislature per student enrolled. The legislature proposed a cut of 1.1% to the foundation funding, which translates into $46,000 less for Mt. Edgecumbe. If that figure survives the special session, it will leave the school — and likely many others — with a deficit.
“As of right now, we’re about $220,000 short for next year,” said Hutton. The school’s annual budget is $10 million, with 45% coming from the legislature, 45% from the EED, and 10% from grants.
To prepare, Hutton is planning to purchases a minimum of school supplies, reduce travel for student activities, reduce dual-credit programs with the University of Alaska Southeast, and keep two and a half open teaching positions empty. But much is up in the air.
Hutton’s experience speaks to the odd situation many superintendents are finding themselves in as their await the final budget: to plan for a financial future with a foggy crystal ball.