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School Board OKs Preliminary Budget After Last-ditch Effort to Reduce Class-size Increase

Tim Ellis/KUAC

The Fairbanks North Star Borough School District Board of Education on Wednesday narrowly approved the administration’s recommended $232 million budget for next school year. That’s 3.3 percent or about $8 million lower than this year’s budget, mainly due to anticipated cuts in both borough and state funding and a slight drop in enrollment. It would require the district to increase class sizes and cut nearly 50 jobs, and sharply cut back on sports and other activities – unless the Assembly and Legislature come through with more funding.

School board members got an earful in meetings earlier this month and again on Monday and Tuesday about the impact of painful cuts in personnel and programs called-for in the proposed budget. Like these excerpts of pleas from Jennifer Cameron, Sharon Baring and Kim Kelly during Tuesday’s regular meeting:

“This evening I do want to speak to you again about the importance of the elementary art-center program, …” Cameron said.

“Last week, over spring break, I learned that yet another one of our amazing teachers plans to leave her career at the end of the school year, …” Bering said.

“I just want to speak to the possibility of eliminating Steve Zanazzo’s position, and strongly, strongly encourage you to reconsider that,” Kelly said.  

So all that was left to do in Wednesday’s meeting was to swallow the bitter pill and pass the budget. Instead, board member Timothy Doran staged a last-ditch effort to amend the budget by moving money around so the district wouldn’t have to increase class size by another two students. He proposed several amendments, including one to take money from the district equipment-replacement fund to pay for another teacher, which he said would reduce the class-size growth to only 1-and-a-half students.   

“I just do not see that it makes sense to be making investments in things, when we don’t have the money and we’re hitting kids,” he said.

That amendment and at least three others proposed by Doran to move money from other funds all failed. But Doran said after the meeting he strongly felt the board should at least try to limit budget cuts that would require more kids to be packed into classrooms.

“What I’m concerned about is we’re increasing class size,” he said. “More students in a classroom – that impacts teachers, impacts the kids, directly.”

District Superintendent Karen Gaborik and Chief Financial Officer Lisa Pearce told board members moving money from one fund to another is not a simple operation, and can cause problems elsewhere in the budget. Gaborik says the administration submitted a “very conservative” budget, because district officials don’t yet know how much funding they’ll get from the borough and state. But they’re assuming it will once again be less than the previous year.

“I encourage the board to be patient,” she said. “I know that it feels to some that we should be making more decisions right now. But we don’t have anything real to base those decisions on. The best we have is revenue speculation, as outlined in the recommended budget.”

In the end, the board agreed with Gaborik and approved the budget – but just barely, by a 4-to-3 vote, with Wendy Dominique and Sean Rice joining Doran in voting against.

After the meeting, Gaborik said she and everyone in the district agrees with Doran over the need to continue looking for ways to reduce the size and impact of the budget cuts. But she says the district had to get the preliminary budget approved and sent to borough officials by the end of the month so they can review it and determine how much local funding they can contribute.

“So it’s a matter of making a conservative proposal, not tweaking it too much – a little bit, y’know we did some changes tonight. And then, waiting until we know what our revenues going to be,” she said.

Perhaps most importantly, Gaborik says the board and administration can now continue working on the budget, so they can look for ways to limit growth in the size of classes and to protect as many district programs and jobs as possible.

Tim has worked in the news business for over three decades, mainly as a newspaper reporter and editor in southern Arizona. Tim first came to Alaska with his family in 1967, and grew up in Delta Junction before emigrating to the Lower 48 in 1977 to get a college education and see the world.