School district may use reserves to cover state travel deficit

School district administrators have recommended using a collection of unspent accounts and general fund reserves to cover the $44,000 deficit in the travel account from past state competition, while acknowledging that does not address the funding problem for the current or future years.

The school board will consider the staff recommendation for wiping out the negative balance in the state travel account at its Nov. 20 meeting, along with discussing options for covering travel costs for this and future years.

The topic for Nov. 20 will be "what we can do going into the future," said Dave Wilson, board president, at an Oct. 16 board workshop attended by more than 30 members of the public at Evergreen Elementary School.

The district covers regular season travel for student athletes and activity participants from the schools' general fund, but not state travel.

In past years, state travel had been covered by donations through a community booster club, student fees and other contributions, but the organization shut down several years ago and the district's state travel account started the 2022-2023 school year with just $312 in the bank.

The travel account had more than $28,000 at the start of the 2014-2015 school year, but spending exceeded contributions and revenues, driving it to near zero last year.

With essentially nothing in the account, last school year's travel for high school girls volleyball, boys basketball, wrestling, cross country, music competition and a few smaller state events overspent the account by about $44,000, Kristy Andrew, district business manager, reported to the board Oct. 16.

Andrew first reported the problem to the board in June, a few months after she had started the job and discovered the deficit. Last week's workshop was scheduled specifically to discuss the issue at a public session devoted entirely to state travel funding.

At one point earlier this fall, school officials had proposed to help cover the deficit by drawing funds from the "class and club" accounts of every sport or activity that participated in a state event last year, upsetting coaches and parents who were not told of the problem in advance and were frustrated to hear their fundraising accounts might be tapped.

The administration's recommendation to draw on unspent funds and reserves to erase the $44,000 gap would end any discussion of pulling money out of class and club accounts, Schools Superintendent Bill Burr explained at the workshop.

One unanswered question from the workshop was how to cover the costs for the high school cross-country team, which traveled to Palmer for the state championship meet - and won - earlier this month. Those expenses are not included in the recommendation to draw $44,000 to resolve last year's deficit, nor is there enough money in the account to cover the costs.

"We're working on that," Wilson said.

"We'd love to have the booster club come back into existence," he said.

"State is an independent event sponsored by the Booster Club," according to the district's outdated activities handbook from last year.

An effort is underway in town to set up a new Wrangell Athletic Club, which would serve much the same purpose: "Raising funds to assist, promote and encourage participation of students and community who participate in school activities," according to the group's recently adopted mission statement.

The fundraising club is scheduled to hold its next meeting at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 25, in the small side room next to the chamber of commerce office in the Stikine Inn.

The club's goal is to pick up the cost of state travel, board member Chris Johnson said at the school board workshop. Though he cautioned, "It may take awhile."

Johnson called the new club "a work in progress," adding, "right now, you (the school district) don't have any money, we don't have any money."

Wilson acknowledged the growing difficulty in raising money. The community is going through the combined stress of a declining population, miserably low salmon prices paid to commercial operators this summer and a lack of workers to fill jobs, while still recovering from the economic losses due to the COVID-19 pandemic. "Everybody has struggles," Wilson said.

The school district has been relying on federal pandemic relief aid and reserves to balance its general fund budget in recent years, in addition to cutting expenses.

More than half of the district's general fund operating budget comes from the state and is based on enrollment numbers, which have dropped significantly since 2019, before COVID-19, as more parents decided to enroll their children in homeschool programs or left the district.

The district has 50 fewer students this school year than it did in 2019, Wilson said, more than a 15% drop.

In addition to declining state funding based on the annual pupil count, the Legislature and governor have not approved a permanent increase in the state funding formula for public education in almost seven years - just small, one-time-only additions.

And while recommending the use of reserve money to wipe out the past state travel deficit, the administration is also asking the school board to approve a policy change regarding the $400 state travel fee charged to every student athlete and activity member who participates in regional competition and could qualify for state.

Under the proposed policy change, which will be taken up by the board Nov. 20, the $400 would be carried in a student-specific account to cover their state travel fee until the money is used for that student or the student has left high school - rather than collecting $400 every year from students who may not travel to state.

The $400 would remain in the student's account through their entire school career, Andrew explained of the proposal.

Burr noted that the $400 per student does not come close to covering state travel costs, but there is a limit to what families can pay. "We don't want to keep them from going to state," he said.

The district had collected several thousand dollars from the $400 fee as of last week, Andrew said.

Sending just one team to state competition in Anchorage, however, can cost thousands for air travel, a rental van and other expenses.

Separate from travel costs to compete at state championships, the district is budgeted this year to spend $173,145 in general fund dollars on student activities at all three schools, which includes wages for coaches and advisers, and $70,000 for student travel unrelated to state competition. That travel and activities spending totals about 5% of the district's overall general fund operating budget of $5.1 million.


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