January 17, 2013 | Volume 43, No.2

School expects enrollment to drop 11 percent

Haines Borough School District Superintendent Michael Byer is projecting an 11 percent drop in enrollment for the coming school year, but told the school board Tuesday an incoming kindergarten class in 2014 could stabilize those numbers.

Combined with an 8 percent drop at the start of the current school year, Byer’s projection, if correct, would amount to a 58-student loss in the course of two years and possible cuts to programs and staffing.

The contrasting size of the 2013 graduating class compared to next fall’s kindergarten is reflective of the district’s shrinking class size, Byer said after the meeting. “We lose 30 seniors and only pick up 17 kindergarteners.”

The state’s “hold harmless” allowance, which buffers reductions in state funding for districts experiencing large enrollment drops, will help somewhat, Byer said. “We’ve asked for a best-guess projection for what kind of revenue that brings in, but either way it’s a decline in funding.”

Enrollment numbers also affect how much money the district gets from the borough and federal government, Byer told the board. “It’s something to prepare for and be aware of.”

School secretaries who help compile projected figures said this week they couldn’t identify a single explanation for smaller, incoming classes, but suggested factors including a sluggish local economy, a trend of families having fewer children, and in-migration of older residents rather than younger ones.

Byer told the board he took some optimism from a count that found 30 would-be kindergarteners in 2014. “How long that boom will sustain itself, I don’t know.” Projecting more than a few years out is difficult, he said.

Also at the meeting, principal Cheryl Stickler reported that the local American Legion Auxiliary would no longer be sponsoring travel to the state spelling bee in Anchorage for the winner of the district’s spelling bee.

For decades, the group has paid small cash awards to the top three spellers and travel costs for the winner and a parent to make the trip north. It was unclear this week whether travel money would be awarded to the winner of the upcoming bee.

Stickler said after the meeting that the district has not yet considered providing travel money, but that it might. She told the board the district would solicit prizes from local businesses for the bee’s top spellers.

Nancy Coleman, vice-president and past president of the American Legion Auxiliary said this week that fund-raising has been difficult because her group is down to about four active members, all working full-time jobs. Fund-raising efforts by other groups in town makes the available money get spread too thin, she said.

Buying bee tickets isn’t cheap because they can’t be purchased in advance, as names of fliers must be attached to them, she said. Her struggling group also discontinued distributing Christmas baskets to the needy, she said. “The Auxiliary has been fizzling out.”

The bee is set for Feb. 8, and the district is in need of a pronouncer and judges, Stickler said.

In other action at Tuesday’s school board meeting, superintendent Byer backed off a proposal to seek a $14,842 annual service contract with ATS Alaska, Inc. to maintain the digital control system on the renovated school’s six-year-old heating and air-handling system.

The warranty that went with the system has expired, Byer told the board. He said he previously believed the cost of the contract was too much but he also was concerned about maintaining system efficiency. “We want our system optimized. Fuel oil is not cheap and there are things that can be done to make it operate better.”

However, he said he remained concerned about the contract’s cost, which he said was equivalent to 11.5 percent of the school’s annual fuel bill. He said he wanted to gather more information from owners of facilities that have similar service contracts.

ATS is the company that installed the digital control system which regulates heating and ventilation in the school. “If I could, I’d like to bring this back in February.”

The school board also approved offering a high school “Science of Gardening” class to be led by Pam Randles and Melissa Aronson of Haines.

The course will provide a semester of science credit “through an examination of principles of permaculture gardening and hands-on experience in gardening, with a focus on self-maintaining agricultural systems,” according to district literature.

High school science teacher Mark Fontenot said it would be a “solid class and a benefit to the community.”