Wrangell’s schools lost proportionally more students than any other district in the state last year — a blow to state support, which is a significant portion of the school’s funding. As the district approaches the May 1 deadline to submit their budget to the borough assembly, Wrangell teachers rallied to save positions by expanding their day-to-day responsibilities in the classroom.
Wrangell’s school district is expecting to lay off a teacher next year.
But Superintendent Debbe Lancaster says she’s not ready to say which position would go: “That’s a tough topic to talk about. Because it — because we’re such a small community and a small district, if I talked about that in public and would almost point to personnel.”
But, the district will only be one position shorter. That’s due to a few factors. One is the expected $700,000 in federal pandemic relief the district plans to receive next year. Another is the district’s teachers themselves.
Elementary school teacher Laurie Hagelman told the school board earlier this week that she and her fellow teachers devised a plan to add mental health learning opportunities into the general curriculum.
That way, she says, the district could get by with just one counselor at the middle and high school, who would be available to the elementary school in emergencies. She says teachers felt like it was important to keep high school and middle school faculty jobs where they could offer advanced electives like calculus, art, or college-prep English.
“We don’t want to see those classes cut, and so we’re willing to shuffle people around as needed so that we can have those classes kept” Hagelman explained.
Superintendent Lancaster also said the secondary schools administrator Bob Davis threatened to quit if more district employees lost their jobs.
“His resignation is contingent on maintaining the same staffing,” Lancaster told the board.
The $5.2 million budget passed by Wrangell’s school board earlier this week is more than $300,000 less than last year’s. It also assumes that the district will recover some of the student enrollment it lost this year. Enrollment plays a big part in the allocation of state funding.
After taking a nosedive during the official student count last fall, Wrangell’s enrollment is currently at just over 200 students. The budget assumes about 20 more students would re-enroll. School board president Aaron Angerman says the community needs to invest in children’s education: “Even if our numbers don’t shoot up, like I hope, even if we don’t get another penny from the feds for COVID, we have something where we can offer programs. We need programs and we need continuity.”
Not all programs will make it through, though. Superintendent Lancaster says there will be some difficult conversations ahead with the lead teachers.
“I would love to say, ‘Oh, no, we won’t cut any classes,'” Lancaster said, “But I have no idea. I have to talk with Mr. Davis and Mrs. Miller-Yancey about what their staffs are going to look like next year.”
The district is planning on saving money next year by cutting hours for support staff. It’s also looking to cut early morning classes like strength training and jazz band which began before the first bell.
It will also use half of the expected pandemic relief money to fund three non-tenured positions. It hasn’t said which ones those would be.
Ryan Howe is a special education teacher and a member of the borough assembly. He was part of the teacher group that helped shape the final budget to save positions and classes.
“We’re all community members, we all want what’s best for our students. Of course, we’re all very aware of the precarious financial situation, and we are trying to work within our means,” Howe said.
The budget passed by the school board assumes that the City and Borough of Wrangell will contribute more than $700,000 to the schools next year, along with almost $600,000 in timber receipts. That’s about what was asked of the borough last year.
The budget has to be submitted to the borough by May 1.
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