School finances need long-term answer

The staff, faculty and students at Wrangell’s three public schools work hard and believe in the importance of education.

Parents help out with volunteer work, and the overall community pitches in, too.

The borough this year is contributing the maximum amount of funding to the school district operating budget allowed under state law. During budget deliberations last May, the assembly boosted the local contribution by more than $300,000 to reach the max for the 2022-2023 school year.

And while that local support is enough for this year and probably next, it’s not enough on its own for the years ahead to keep all the staff, classes and programs that students need to prepare them for life and jobs after graduation.

Wrangell schools, same as many other districts around the state, face an uncertain and dangerous long-term financial future. The solution will require more state funding and serious discussions and decisions in the community.

Enrollment is down at Wrangell schools by about 50 students from before the pandemic, about 15%. The student count is just over half what it was 30 years ago, as the loss of timber industry jobs and a decline in new families with children moving to town has seriously reduced the school-age population.

State funding, which covers more than 60% of the district’s operating budget, is based almost entirely on enrollment numbers. As such, state aid was down even before the pandemic further cut into enrollment as parents turned to homeschooling or correspondence, or just left town.

Meanwhile, the state has sat on its hands — and its checkbook — adding just 0.5% to the per-student funding formula over the past six years as inflation climbed almost 20% during that period.

With lethargic state funding, the borough at the max and enrollment down, the school district’s financial savior has been federal pandemic relief grants totaling about $1 million, but that money will run out the next school year.

Only by taking $112,000 from the district’s fund balance — its reserves — does the draft budget for the 2023-2024 school year balance. That would leave about $632,000 in the reserves as of June 2024, getting a little tight for a district with an annual general fund operating budget almost nine times that dollar amount.

The state Legislature this year says it will give serious consideration to raising the per-student funding formula, as it should. How much of a raise is unknown, though it probably will not be sufficient to completely solve Wrangell’s long-term school finances. The political pull to pay a big Permanent Fund dividend, and dissatisfaction among some elected state officials over low student test scores present sizable hurdles to winning enough votes for a large boost in state aid to schools.

Meanwhile, the fixed costs of operating and maintaining Wrangell’s elementary, middle and high school buildings, staff and faculty salaries, insurance, utilities and everything else will continue to rise, regardless of the student count. And if enrollment heads back down after a couple of stable years, the budget numbers will look even worse.

It’s a serious problem the community needs to publicly and honestly discuss. None of the money-saving options are attractive: Eliminating programs, moving from in-class teachers to remote instructors, consolidating the three schools into one. All would hurt students.

Though the school board makes the final decisions, the options are serious enough that the entire community needs to take an interest. There is time to figure this out, but only if people pay attention and think about what they want for Wrangell’s future and how to pay for it.

 

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