The ‘dumbing down’ of Skagway

 In all our 33 years in Skagway, we have never been as frustrated with our municipal government as in the past few weeks. We believe the borough assembly has not only performed a disservice to the community, but it has ignored the wishes of the vast majority of the public who support municipal funding of our school to the cap allowed by state law.

In case you have not been following the stories in the paper, here is the short version of what happened:
• After funding the school a year ago, assembly members told school board members that they had to make cuts to the budget the following year and do their best to fit the so-called “outside funding” programs into their regular operating budget. The timber receipts fund, which had been used to fund extra program needs, was being depleted.
• In the fall, the district saw enrollment drop into the 80s after it had budgeted for 95 students. Worse, the new interim superintendent projected enrollment in the low 70s the following year. He rightfully urged financial restraint.
• Although relations between the superintendent, staff and board were strained, they worked on a number of concessions in a negotiated agreement that resulted in a reduced budget that successfully avoided a RIF (reduction in force), in part because the history teacher had resigned and would not be replaced. No one received a raise, and there also were major concessions in health care coverage. This was presented to the assembly in a work session.
• At the work session, there seemed to be consensus that the borough would fund the school operating budget to the cap allowed by the state, but that the board needed to work on paring down its $409,752 extra funding request. The board came back with a cut of about $57,000 that reduced music to a half-time program and eliminated funding for pre-school.
• When the amended school budget hit the assembly table, municipal funding to the cap and the extra program requests were built into the sales tax budget, as allowed by borough code. However, in a strange twist to the normal process, four members decided to leave the extra funding budget alone, and instead cut the regular operational budget from the allowable municipal cap of $1.251 million to $1.1 million. The primary reason cited for this move was to bring the cost per student down to a reasonable level of $15,000 per student. But there were also digs at teacher salaries and complaints about the board not instituting a RIF.
• The mayor vetoed the action, saying that the assembly had given the board the impression that they would fund to the cap and cut the extra programs budget. However, the four assembly members said the mayor does not speak for them, and voted to override on a 4-2 vote. This vote has held all the way through the municipal budget process, despite the emotional testimony of more than 50 people at assembly meetings. Only three have testified in support of the assembly’s action.

The four assembly members have explained that their action was needed to bring some financial discipline to the school budget process, and that the board did not listen to the seriousness of their arguments last year. This may be true, but the action of cutting $151,780 below the basic educational cap – instead of cutting from the extra programs – sent a disturbing message. It implied that the school board was not doing its job, and in our mind was akin to the old days of inflicting corporal punishment, with some assembly members sounding like the parent who paddles his child and says “this hurts me more than you.”

Worse, the action of not funding to the cap sends a horrible message to the community, the state and the federal government. The message is that your municipal government does not care enough about its students to fund their basic educational needs.

It amounts to the dumbing down of the future of Skagway, and here’s why:
• We are a town steeped in history, yet we now have no properly trained history teacher to teach kids about our history and our significance in American and world history.
• We are a town that has watched with pride as the school improved and students scored the highest in the state, yet we now will have teachers who have no prep periods for classes that they are not even trained to teach, and there is no room in the schedule for advanced placement offerings to challenge our best and brightest.
• We are a town in pursuit of year-round economic development opportunities to help boost population and enrollment, yet your municipal government has ignored families who say they will leave if the school is not funding basic educational needs. This means that local residents who could work the new jobs brought on by a busier port may not stick around to fill those jobs. The borough will have to bring in Outside workers who have no roots in the community and who may have no reason to stay, let alone have families to replace the ones that we could have held on to.
• We are a town that prides itself on being independent and taking care of its own, yet we are pretending to be hurting when we are not. If we were hurting, then the assembly would have cut three jobs from other municipal departments along with the three full-time staff positions cut at the school. But they scoff at that notion, whether it comes from the newspaper publisher, a former mayor, or even its own finance chair.

This all amounts to what we view as an unprecedented and damaging situation that must be turned around to preserve the quality of life of the community. Frankly, we are surprised the community has not risen up beyond the public testimony, which doesn’t seem to have worked, and submitted a petition to back up the overwhelming public sentiment. The hunters in town collected 88 names and did more to make the assembly compromise on shooting boundaries than a roomful of emotional pleas from school children, parents and teachers.

Maybe the people feel beaten down. Maybe they are waiting for the fall election. Maybe then it will be too late. We hope not.

It’s time to put those tears and frustrations on paper in large numbers and demand a budget amendment to restore municipal funding of school operations to the cap. Then the assembly can properly deal with the extra funding requests, working with the school board to institute the cuts they feel are needed. This needs to be done before the school submits its budget to the state on July 15. This will restore faith in our system and faith in our leaders.

It’s never too late to right a wrong. – WJB