A Wrangell Wolves sign in the Wrangell High School commons area.
(Sage Smiley / KSTK)

Wrangell’s school board has approved a $5 million budget for next year ahead of its May 1 deadline to submit a budget to the borough government. School officials say the district is approaching dire financial straits.

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The budget approved by the Wrangell school board on April 18 is about $200,000 smaller than the one it sent to the borough assembly last year, and projects a $40,000 deficit. Wrangell Superintendent Bill Burr told the school board that money is very tight in the school district. 

“We’ve been talking for quite a while, including our frank discussion with the borough assembly that we need to future-proof,” Burr said. “We’re doing quite a bit, and none of it is ideal. Anytime we are looking at staffing cuts, it’s pretty tough.”

Wrangell Public Schools’ approved budget doesn’t technically include any layoffs, district finance manager Tammy Stromberg told the school board on Monday (April 18). But there are cuts. 

“We’ve eliminated another elementary position by filling a position that was vacant in the middle school with one of the personnel at the elementary school,” Stromberg explained, adding that to further save money: “We’ve deleted the benefits from the athletic director position, which basically means that the athletic director function will be filled with an extra duty contract.”

Federal funds will be used for the next two years to pay principals at the elementary and secondary schools, and the district isn’t hiring for some teaching positions that are being lost through attrition as people retire. 

But Wrangell’s school district – which operates an elementary school, middle school and high school – is already walking a wire. 

“At present, the district is struggling,” Stromberg explained. “We have staff positions that we cannot fill. We’re having admins go to these positions if we can’t get a sub. So all our admin staff in the central office and in the schools are going to classrooms or lunch areas to serve and fill in where necessary, and we were only able to increase their salaries by $28,000 because we simply can’t afford more.”

Stromberg also added that the district has rising costs out of its control – 90% of the district’s budget goes to salaries, benefits, insurance, fuel and electricity. The other 10% doesn’t leave a lot of wiggle room. 

“We have a few places to go, so we need to be thinking long term about how these revenue numbers are going to go down,” Stromberg said. “They’ll probably continue to go down unless we find other funding source increases from the borough or the state.”

One short-term solution could be a bill being considered in the Alaska Legislature that would increase the amount of money the district receives per student – but only for next year. Those extra funds, appropriated by House Bill 272, would equal about $140,000 for Wrangell’s schools. 

“Our costs are rising, we have cut our certified staff and so we need to plan ahead,” Stromberg said. “If House Bill 272 does not pass, then we’ll be running down to a fund balance of about $186,000 at the end of FY 23 which is not a very cozy place to be.”

For the time being, Stromberg said the school district will request about $300,000 more from the borough than it did last year – a total of almost $1.6 million. 

“If House Bill 272 doesn’t pass and we don’t get any additional funding from the borough, then we’re going to have to make some severe cuts or make some other changes that will be rather political or uncomfortable or maybe require a lot of discussion to get everybody comfortable with,” Stromberg explained. 

Stromberg added that the district needs to start brainstorming what to do next if more funds don’t come in from the local government or the state. 

“We’re going to have to work hard to control our budget next year, look for savings wherever we can, and hope that we can find funding sources that prevent the closing of a school or other things that would be uncomfortable or not good for the educational program,” Stromberg said. 

To shore up what funds it can, the school district is looking into investing funds in the Alaska Municipal League Investment Pool, or AMLIP. That’s a low-risk investment fund available to municipal governments and other organizations. Wrangell’s borough government also recently started investing in AMLIP

The borough assembly has started its own budget cycle this week with a work session on Wednesday (April 20). Last year, the borough contributed $1.3 million to the school district, paid through federal funding programs and forest receipts.

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