Community needs long-term plan for school funding

The assembly’s decision to take away any benefit to the school district of the Legislature’s one-year increase in state education funding for next year makes sense from the perspective of the borough’s own finances. However, there are more perspectives to consider. Long term, the community needs a plan to adequately fund its schools.

The school board had asked the borough to contribute $1.75 million — the maximum amount allowed under state law — to the school district’s $6 million spending plan for the 2024-2025 school year. That would have been an increase over this past year’s $1.6 million local contribution.

But even with the increase in borough money, the district still figured it would have to draw down more than half of its operating reserves account to balance the budget. At that rate, the reserves would be gone in another year. That’s painful to calculate.

The Legislature, however, appropriated $175 million in one-time money to increase state funding of local school district operating budgets. The governor has indicated he will agree to the spending when he signs the budget later this month. That would mean an additional $440,000 in state aid to Wrangell schools.

The district figured that additional state money would reduce its need to draw down on reserves, extending the life of the account a little longer.

But in approving the local contribution to the school district budget last month, the assembly essentially decided that if the additional state aid comes through, the borough would deduct it from the $1.75 million request and give the district $1.3 million. If there is no help from the state, the borough would send the full $1.75 million to the district.

Just like the school district, which must deal with its dwindling reserves, the borough has a similar problem.

A portion of sales tax revenues covers a large part of the borough’s payment to the school district. The rest comes from federal dollars sent to Wrangell under the Secure Rural Schools program, which goes toward schools and road work. Funding under that program fluctuates, as does everything with Congress, so the borough has held a reserve to cover its spending needs in lean federal years.

Borough officials worry that drawing more money from the fund to cover a higher contribution to the schools would create its own problem, jeopardizing road projects. So the assembly decided that any additional state money should reduce the local contribution to schools, thereby preserving the borough’s own reserves. That means the school district, its teachers and students will see no benefit from the extra state funding.

The borough and school district need to look at their respective reserve funds, figure out what truly is needed in reserve and, if it means using or raising more sales tax dollars to take some of the burden off the federal aid account, do the math and find a long-term answer.

- Wrangell Sentinel


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