Juneau teachers, students and parents react to proposed school cutbacks

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The Juneau School District held a community input session on Wednesday, Jan. 31, 2024 at the Thunder Mountain High School library. Attendees wrote questions and stuck them on a board on the wall. (Katie Anastas/KTOO)

The Juneau School District is facing a nearly $8 million budget deficit for the current school year. District leaders are considering closing or reorganizing schools and cutting staff to balance the budget. 

At community input sessions over the past week, teachers, parents and students shared their concerns about combining high schools and splitting elementary levels.

One option district leaders have proposed is closing Thunder Mountain High School and sending its students to Yadaa.at Kalé Juneau-Douglas. According to the district, Juneau-Douglas has 545 students, putting it at 50% capacity. Thunder Mountain has 569 students, which is 76% of its capacity. Thunder Mountain opened in 2008 under the assumption that Juneau’s population would continue to grow

Some coaches and students at the input sessions worried about limiting the amount of space on high school sports teams. Josiah Loseby, Thunder Mountain’s head swim and dive coach, said sports help many kids keep their grades up.

“Sports across the board and activities across the board keep students engaged, keep students coming to school, and encourage them to do well,” he said. “I think there’s going to be a drastic reduction in the graduation rate, a drastic reduction in student performance overall.”

Thunder Mountain senior Jade Hicks attended Tuesday’s input session. She said parking is a big concern for students who drive — Juneau-Douglas doesn’t have Thunder Mountain’s large parking lot. Plus, she said, students like having high school options.

“There’s a reason people choose their own respective schools,” Hicks said. “I chose Thunder Mountain because I wanted to learn Russian.”

School board member Emil Mackey said if they don’t close a high school, the district might have to offer fewer electives instead.

“Consolidating the schools, I believe, will actually preserve more student activities and more electives, because you’ll have more people under a common roof to actually provide those services,” he said.

Another proposal is to change how elementary grades are split. Right now, Juneau’s elementary schools house kindergarten through fifth grade. The district is considering dividing elementary buildings into kindergarten through third grade schools and fourth through sixth grade schools.

In an interview, Superintendent Frank Hauser said savings would come from distributing students more evenly among classrooms according to the pupil-teacher ratio, which the district uses to allocate teachers among grade levels.

“If there’s only three schools that have second graders, versus six schools, you have more opportunity to get that ideal number across more teachers in those three schools,” Hauser said.

But splitting up the elementary grades worried many teachers, including Janarose Odenheimer, a special education teacher at Sayéik: Gastineau Community School.

“The people who are going to get hurt the worst are the lower socioeconomic students and families within our district,” Odenheimer said. “Absenteeism will go up, because how are my sixth grader and fifth grader going to bring my kindergartener and first grader to school?”

Rosemary Slotnik, a behavioral paraeducator at Sayéik: Gastineau Community School, told district leaders on Thursday that having siblings at the same school helps build relationships with families.

“In a neighborhood school, the school knows and supports the whole family,” she said. “If a second grader is struggling, we can check in with the fourth grade teacher of an older sibling and see if they’re seeing what we see. We know which family needs extra support.”

Some savings from school closures would come from eliminating duplicate staff positions, like principals, nurses, librarians and office staff. The district estimates it would save $668,000 by closing an elementary school, $913,000 by closing a middle school and $1.3 million by closing a high school from salaries alone.

Hauser said the district would also save on utilities, custodial and maintenance costs. Exact savings would vary depending on the school. 

“Thunder Mountain is a more modern building that has more energy saving features, but it’s a smaller footprint, so it’s going to have less utilities cost,” he said. “JD is going to be able to have more capacity for students but has a different cost for property insurance.”

Hauser said enrollment projections are a key piece to estimating the full savings for the different options, since school size affects state funding. The district is still waiting on demographic projections for next year.

In the meantime, the district is asking the Juneau Assembly to cover nearly $4 million in maintenance, utilities and property insurance costs.

The Assembly Finance Committee will discuss the request at a meeting Wednesday at 5:30 p.m. The meeting will be open to the public at City Hall and on Zoom.

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