Fairbanks School Board OKs Budget That Cuts 60 Jobs; Member May Seek Salary Freeze

The Fairbanks North Star Borough School District Governing Board passed a budget Wednesday that would cut about 60 full-time positions and trim many programs. One board member who voted against the measure says the cuts go too far, and she says she’ll push for a salary freeze to reduce the impact of the cuts.

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In contrast to the hours of impassioned public testimony in the previous two school board meetings over the impact of budget cuts, the mood Wednesday was reserved – even resigned.

Board President Heidi Haas says none of the board members was very happy with the prospect of approving a budget that’s more than $11 million lower than last year’s, due to state funding cuts driven by plummeting oil revenue.

“I have a lot of heartburn around the cuts that we’ve made,” Haas said. “These cuts are going to directly impact my three kids, as well as our (district’s) other 14,000 kids.”

Board Clerk Lisa Gentry says she’s been increasingly bothered by the cuts in recent weeks. Especially after hearing wrenching testimony Monday and Tuesday about how those cuts would diminish the quality of instruction.

“After Monday’s budget meeting, I did not feel good when I went home,” she said. “I didn’t feel like I was advocating for anybody. Then especially after hearing all the testimony last night, it reinforced everything that I was thinking, and everything that we could save.”

Gentry says that’s why she declared Wednesday that she can’t support the budget.

She says the public testimony made her realize that even though the district claims the cuts won’t lead to increased class sizes, they’ll have much the same effect. Because cutting so much support staff  like nurses and counselors will require teachers to assume those staffers’ responsibilities.

“That student that may be causing a ruckus or having an emotional breakdown, that teacher’s going to have to take them out of the room and calm them down and give them one-on-one instruction,” she said. “So, we may not have touched the classroom in real teacher’s class size, but we’ve affected the classroom by cutting all these other programs.”

Gentry says some of those cuts could be restored if the district would impose a salary freeze, which would save about $3.9 million.

Gentry admits she proposed the freeze at the last minute. She says she’s tried to raise the issue earlier, and finally just had to bring it up before the board adopted the budget.

“I want it on the record,” she said. “So I came tonight to say my piece.”

Gentry considered making a motion to formally propose it, but decided against it after Haas said it would take time to develop another budget that factored in the freeze, and then to schedule more public hearings. Haas briefly recessed the meeting to confirm that with district and borough attorneys, who told her the budget schedule is dictated by state law and borough code.

The board then approved the $274.9 million budget 4-to-1, with Gentry dissenting. Vice President Wendy Dominique attended via telephone, but wasn’t allowed to vote; member Sue Hull was absent.

Gentry says she plans to propose a salary freeze in upcoming budget deliberations.

Haas says the public would get a chance to weigh in on the proposal if the board backs Gentry’s motion. Haas says testimony may also be given on other budget changes that are proposed once district and borough officials learn how much the Legislature has appropriated for education after it adjourns. This year’s session is scheduled to end April 17th.

“We’ll do another work session and public hearing,” she said. “And then there’s always the opportunity anytime a motion is on the table.”

Haas says she believes the district may have to go through the same budget-slashing exercise all over again next year. She says another cut of about the same size may be needed, because of predictions that the state will again reduce education funding, due to the likelihood that oil prices will remain low through the coming year.