Juneau School District may close schools and cut staff amid budget crisis

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Juneau School District Superintendent Frank Hauser explains the district’s projected $9.5 million budget deficit during a meeting on Thursday, Jan. 18, 2024. (Clarise Larson/KTOO)

Last week, the Juneau School District outlined its budget crisis at a community meeting in the Yadaa.at Kalé Juneau-Douglas High School auditorium.

Many parents asked how the district got here – how accounting errors by the district’s school finance manager, who resigned last month, could have created most of the deficit.

But others, like parent Kate Hudson, wanted to know what’s next. 

“Are schools going to close?” she asked. “Are teachers going to be sacked? Are teachers going to be told they need to take retirement? What are you actually saying?”

School Board members said all of those options were on the table.

“The thing we need from the public is an awareness and an acceptance that nobody is coming out untouched,” member Emil Mackey said. “Nobody.”

During a board retreat on Saturday, Superintendent Frank Hauser brought the board three examples of what school closures might look like.

The first model involves moving sixth grade to elementary schools and consolidating seventh and eighth grade at one campus. That would let the district close one middle school.

“All the elementary schools in the neighborhood become K through 6 schools,” Hauser said. “Sixth grades would no longer go to the middle schools. It would consolidate Floyd Dryden and D’zantiki Heeni to one school with grades 7 and 8.”

The second model goes a step further and splits elementary grades into kindergarten through third grade schools and grades 4 through 6 schools. District staff said that could allow them to consolidate the services it provides for younger and older elementary students.

The third model would close two schools through a combination of splitting grades and consolidating. Elementary grades would be split into K through third grade schools and grades 4 through 6 schools. Thunder Mountain High School would become a junior high, with grades 7 through 9. Grades 10 through 12 would go to Yadaa.at Kalé Juneau-Douglas High School.

But board member Will Muldoon said he was hesitant to split up high school grades.

“No other district does that, and I don’t know how that impacts activities, athletics,” he said. “We hear that those are the reasons that kids come to school.”

All three models would save money by eliminating staff positions like principals, office staff and nurses. Increasing class sizes could lead to further staff cuts.

Saturday’s meeting included some good news: further analysis puts the district’s estimated deficit at $8.5 million instead of $9.5 million. Finance contractor Lisa Pearce said she and district staff found $1 million in savings related to health insurance.

But addressing the deficit will still require other cost saving measures.

District leaders discussed splitting custodial, maintenance and utilities costs with the City and Borough of Juneau. District and city leaders have also discussed moving programs like Community Schools over to the city. After Sitka’s Community Schools ended in 2019 amid budget cuts, the City and Borough of Sitka revived it as a city program.

The board also asked the superintendent to look into four-day school weeks, something the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District is also considering.

The district has created a reorganization committee made up of teachers, community members and school board members to provide input on potential school consolidations. The board’s next budget work session is Tuesday at 5:30 p.m.

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