Wrangell’s school district is looking at downsizing to one school building in the coming years as enrollment declines and prices rise. The school board, borough assembly and community members say it’s not a decision to be taken lightly, but the district is running out of ways to save money.
Bankruptcy isn’t really an option for a school district – throughout the country, only a few districts have gone bankrupt in the last 60 years. So it’s up to the district to find solutions or ask the local government for more money. Wrangell’s school district is trying both.
The district’s $5 million draft budget requests around $1.6 million from the borough, $725,000 from local taxes and the remaining $875,000 via a passthrough of federal money given to former logging communities.
But even with that contribution, the district projects it won’t quite break even, and will absorb a $53,000 deficit with savings. And it’s only going to get worse in the coming years.
“There are financial concerns coming from the school district,” Superintendent Bill Burr told Wrangell school board and Borough Assembly members at a joint work session March 6. He painted a dire financial picture.
“We had requested last year for an increase in the contribution [from the borough] because we needed it to break even. And that was cutting positions where people were leaving, we just didn’t fill it. Even with that, we were on a razor-thin margin, as you can see that our reserve substantially depleted and won’t sustain the principals coming back on board.”
That’s because the district is currently paying the salary and benefits of the elementary and secondary school principals out of a federal pandemic relief grant, ESSER-III. But next year, that grant will run out, and the salaries and benefits, which amount to a quarter-million dollars, will have to be paid from the school’s general fund. It won’t be able to absorb the cost.
Brittani Robbins sits on both the borough assembly and school board. And she suggested an idea that’s been floated more and more frequently – consolidating Wrangell’s schools. She said the district estimates it would save around $266,000 if it wasn’t operating the elementary school building.
“$260,000 for two principals,” Robbins pointed out, “Which is what we’re spending on to operate a single building [the elementary school] at a very small capacity.”
It would mean moving around 130 elementary students to the middle and high school building, which houses about the same number of students: 133 secondary students, 64 in the middle school and 69 in the high school.
Superintendent Burr is not sure putting all students under one roof is the answer. He said the district needs the borough’s help to brainstorm solutions.
“Consolidation of the campuses is not a perfect fit,” Burr cautioned. That’s a point he’s emphasized in the past as well. “There are many things that would be lost in the process […] So we would be looking at the borough assembly to help us find out how we’re going to stay functional. And that I think is the biggest request we would have is: it’s not all financial. But what’s the best thing for students? And if we can do that as a school district – pretty happy about that.”
Inflation has hit Wrangell Public Schools hard, especially since per-student state funding has plateaued over the last six years. There are also just less students.
Enrollment in Wrangell’s schools dropped precipitously in 2020 – the district lost more students per capita than any other district in the state. While numbers have bounced back somewhat – there are 263 students enrolled this year up from 140 during the pandemic – it’s still lower than the past. That means less money from the state.
“The question that we have in all of our school board meetings is: Is it good for kids?” Burr said. “Moving everybody to one building is not the best concept. But neither is the inability to have classes, to have electives, to have staff. We’re at a paper-thin level of staffing.”
And “paper-thin” staffing can be detrimental for a school district.
Wrangell’s Special Education Director Ryan Howe serves on the borough assembly. Howe says he’s especially concerned about how much the district struggles to retain aides and how little financial wiggle room there is.
“Litigation is always an inch away,” Howe said, “And if it comes, you can’t say as a public institution, ‘We can’t afford it.’ You can’t say you can’t afford it. If you get a kid come in who needs full-time nursing care, as a public school, you’ll pay for it. Because you can’t say ‘You can’t play.’”
While consolidation might help the district find more money for paraprofessionals, there are also significant physical roadblocks to a potential school merge. There’s very little parking at Wrangell’s secondary schools, which are more centrally-located than the elementary school.
Teacher Arlene Wilson represented elementary school teachers and students at the meeting. She brought up a host of other issues and questions: toilets in the secondary schools aren’t designed for small students. Would there be a library for younger students? What about crosswalk safety in the busier downtown area? What about storage for multiple subjects’ worth of materials in elementary classrooms? Plus, there’s no playground.
“Outside free spaces are extremely important for the development, for many different physical as well as social-emotional skills, and in a gym for recess does not allow for free play,” Wilson said, “Nor does the gym have the equipment needed for developing physical skills.”
Another teacher, Winston Davies, also pointed out that a K-12 school isn’t ideal for growing a larger student population on the island.
“You’re trying to attract families to this community,” he pointed out, “And they’re coming – we’ve had this quite a few times where families come to the school to get a tour to see what the school system is like. If they see that they’ve got K-12 crammed in this one building, there’s a playground way over there that we can’t use, they’re gonna be like ‘I don’t know about this, this doesn’t look good.’ So I get that the budget is very important. But again, what’s best for our kids too?”
So the district is in a pickle. How does it do what’s best for students and families while not running itself financially into the ground?
Many cost-saving measures are on the table. Some school board members have proposed a four-day school week or adding a Wrangell-run homeschooling option. Assembly members proposed trying to share an IT professional between the borough and district, though that would be a huge job. Mayor Patty Gilbert even suggested that the borough could give the district a price break on borough-run electricity.
Meanwhile, the district is cutting everything it can. Next year’s proposed student travel budget to get athletes to games and musicians and artists to festivals is slashed by 20% ($17,200).
And school staff are doing everything they can to save money, down to replacing lightbulbs. “It may not seem like much,” School Board President David Wilson said, “But when you’ve got as many lights as we’ve got, changing them all out to LED is a savings.”
There are major maintenance projects to fund at the schools as well.
The fire alarm and elevators at the middle and high schools are in desperate need of repair or replacement – those projects are scheduled to happen this summer. There’s an environmentally unsafe diesel storage tank at the high school that needs to be replaced.
Borough voters approved a $3.5 million bond last October, which Wrangell hopes to use to leverage an additional $6.5 million of state grant funding for structural repairs to all its schools.
And that caused some heartburn for assembly member Jim DeBord.
“One of my fears with this, if we don’t make a decision soon,” DeBord said, “Is that we pay a couple hundred thousand, 300-, 400,000 to fix the elementary school and then we shutter it two or three or four years from now because we’re forced into that versus it being a decision. And then we’ve kind of done a disservice to the community as a whole because we spent a ton of money and then we mothball the place. I get that there’s no good answer. But if we could get ahead of it rather than being forced to make the decision, that’s my fear.”
Whatever the district decides will involve a lot of community input, said Mayor Patty Gilbert.
“Anybody who lived through the moving sixth grade over to middle school,” Gilberd pointed out, “[Knows] that took a lot of community notice and meetings and so forth.”
School Board President Wilson agreed. Plus, he said, the district needs to do some research. What if the incoming elementary class sizes balloon?
“Do we consolidate schools now and then in five years from now, say, ‘We don’t have the room, we’ve got to go back to the other building again’?” Wilson asked, continuing: “Then we’re in a big fix there. So I think we need to gather some data: how many students are coming in for the next three or four years, compared to how many students are going out?”
School board and assembly members and parents alike say it’s a Catch-22. When the district can’t offer Advanced Placement classes or find the approximately $112,000 to hire an art teacher – art is currently taught by the music teacher – it pushes students and families to look at homeschooling, boarding schools like Mt. Edgecumbe in Sitka, or moving out of the community altogether.
Teacher and parent Mikki Angerman said the situation is heart-rending.
“Families want to move here knowing that they’re going to have their kids in a school that’s going to prepare them for what’s next,” she said, “And if we can’t do that, then they’re going to look for a different place to go.”
“When you’re talking about ‘There’s no perfect answer,’” Angerman continued. “Consolidating schools is not a perfect answer. But I don’t want to see us also lose more programs. So which are you going to pick… which is a disgusting place for us to have to be. I wish we could do better for our kids.”
Whether the Wrangell district ultimately decides to consolidate its schools, it won’t happen this next school year. But community leadership agrees that all possible solutions to the district’s budget woes should remain on the table – at least for now.
Wrangell’s school board is set to adopt a budget for the coming year (FY24) on Monday, March 20 at 6:30 p.m. The school board meeting will be held over Zoom and is open to the public.
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