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Unalaska schools 'teetering' on the edge of a fiscal cliff

March 18th, 2017 | Jim Paulin, The Bristol Bay Times-Dutch Harbor Fisherman Print this article   Email this article  

Facing fears of steep financial decline, the Unalaska City School District should have enough money saved to cover next year's projected deficit of $269,000, though school officials fear a much deeper hole. Depending on funding from the state, which is experiencing a fiscal crisis because of low oil prices, the school board may have to make big budget cuts.

The school board last week took its first look at next year's proposed $7.4 million budget. Final action is set for the March 23 meeting, and then it goes to the city council. In revenues projected for next year, 55 percent is from the state, 42 percent local, and 3 percent from the federal government.

Board member Frank Kelty said the deficit could end up as high as $600,000, potentially leading the board to negotiate for savings in teacher union negotiations.

Superintendent John Conwell said the school saved as much as it could in its fund balance, knowing that lean times were coming. But they arrived sooner than expected.

"We didn't think we'd get to the edge of cliff as quickly as we did," said Conwell, saying the school is "teetering on the edge," and predicting "belt tightening."

The budget, as currently proposed, assumes an enrollment of 388 students, a 7 percent increase in health insurance to $30,780 per employee per year, a 7.7 increase for utilities to $320,000, the same number of staff and the same level of state funding.

School Business Manager Holly Holman said cuts won't affect staff in the coming school year, because labor contracts have already been signed. But the travel budget is a likely source of savings, she said.

The proposed travel budget, nearly unchanged from the current level, is $562,000, with 87 percent for student journeys and 13 percent for staff trips.

Conwell said the school could absorb a 10 percent cut to the travel budget, but at 20 or 25 percent, it could make it hard for the school to continue sports programs and academic competitions involving flights to Anchorage and beyond.

Alternative funding sources could include charging parents more for student travel, soliciting community donations for playground and other equipment, saving money on energy by turning off computers, looking for health insurance cost savings, and having students generate revenues by selling smokehouses, and tools made with 3D printers.

Board Chair Tammy Fowler Pound said the school could be looking at an extended period of budget cuts in the future. "This isn't a one-year problem," she said. Depending on what the legislators do in the state capital in Juneau, she said the school board may end up making final budget changes in August.

Most of the budget goes to pay teachers and staff, about $5.6 million with $3.6 million in salaries and $2 million in benefits.

The top salary is the superintendent's, at $126,579 plus benefits at $51,046, for a total of $177,625; the business manager's is $94,779 with benefits of $45,955 for $140,733 total; the technology coordinator earns $76,019 plus $54,841 in benefits for $130,859 total; the highest paid teachers in regular education earn $87,117 in salary and $44,728 in benefits for $131,845 total.

The proposed cost of Internet and telephone and faxes is $320,000, unchanged from the current year.

Jim Paulin can be reached at


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