February 21, 2024
Juneau superintendent says ‘small, targeted cuts’ won’t fix budget crisis



The Juneau School District office on Tuesday, Dec. 16, 2024. (Clarise Larson/KTOO)

At a Juneau school board meeting Tuesday night, Superintendent Frank Hauser said the district needs to cut about 10% of its budget to address its $9.5 million deficit.

“With the magnitude of this problem and these numbers, I don’t believe it’s possible any longer for the district to make small, targeted cuts to address these huge numbers,” he said.

The size of the deficit — which was driven in part by accounting errors and shrinking enrollment — only came to light this month. On Tuesday, Hauser presented a list of immediate changes the district can make to start chipping away at it. 

His list included a hiring freeze, limiting travel and reducing summer school offerings to high school credit recovery, grant-funded classes and Alaska Reads Act requirements — a small slice of the deficit.

“These are a rough saving estimate of approximately $350,000,” Hauser said. “I actually have a goal of identifying $1 million in savings to enact before June 30.”

Hauser also outlined broader changes the board could consider, like increasing class sizes or consolidating schools. Hauser said that increasing the ratio of students to teachers by two in elementary grades and three in secondary grades could save more than $2 million. But he warned that closing schools could cost the district state funding because the state’s school funding formula benefits smaller schools.

From there, Hauser said, the district could start thinking about more targeted cuts. That could include eliminating certain positions, like librarians, counselors, nurses and office staff. 

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The board could also consider cutting elective classes. Hauser said it could be complicated.

“The question of what is ‘not required’ has a lot of variables for the board to consider,” Hauser said. “Teachers might teach one section of a required class, like English 9, and one section of an elective class, maybe yearbook.”

Board member David Noon, a professor at the University of Alaska Southeast, said he understood how district employees might be feeling. Gov. Mike Dunleavy proposed major budget cuts for the university system in 2019.

“Those of us who worked there spent six months in a kind of continual panic over the future of our positions,” he said. “And I know there are a lot of people watching this meeting right now who are also concerned about the future of their employment with the district.”

Even with major cuts, the district won’t be able to close its budget gap in one year. Hauser said the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development is giving the district five years to address the deficit.

But the district will still be required to pass a balanced budget. Hauser said the district could consider taking out a loan. For example, he said, if the district made enough cuts to get the deficit to $5 million, it could take out a $5 million loan.

That would require approval from the state. And board finance committee chair Will Muldoon said the district would still need to address its underlying budget challenges.

“Even if the agreement with DEED does work out, it still does not change the size of the deficit. It just changes the size of the runway that we have to land this issue,” he said.

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The school board and district leaders will continue discussing budget cuts in the coming weeks. The board’s finance committee will meet on Thursday at 12 p.m. on Zoom.