Opening the Karl Ward Gym each Sunday for two hours would cost the Haines Borough School District $105 per session, or about $3,000 per winter season, superintendent Michael Byer told the school board last week.

The school board discussed the Sunday open gym request, approved hire of a half-time reading teacher and dropped a requirement for a performance bond for the school bus company at its meeting last week.

It also endorsed a state education bill similar to the school funding mechanism in place the past three years.

With the level of state funding for the district unknown and the borough contribution to schools not yet set, the district has released few budget figures for the coming year. The school district also is currently negotiating a new contract with teachers.

Superintendent Michael Byer has said he’ll be seeking an increased borough contribution, and last week told the school board he expects a general fund balance of $526,570 when the current fiscal year ends.

That amount is close to the $534,598 limit. As established by state law, a district can’t carry over more than 10 percent of its budget.

“We could end up here with an ending general fund balance that looks pretty healthy,” Byer told the board. One reason for the surplus is a student count of 310 students in October that was above the projected district enrollment of 284, he said.

Although the surplus is considerably bigger than a previous fund balance of $300,000, Byer characterized it as prudent, considering unknowns the district faces.

“The reason for the reserve is to account for unforeseen facility problems or equipment needs. It’s for the things you don’t see,” he said after the meeting.

He said the reserve also could help the district if the state’s base student allocation doesn’t increase this year. “It could get us through next year without catastrophic effects. It could help prevent lay-offs.”

Adding a half-time reading teacher would come from about $55,000 in a federal funding category and is critical to improving early literacy rates in the school, a district priority, Byer told the board.

Currently, 20 percent of students aren’t meeting reading proficiency standards at third grade, principal Cheryl Stickler told the board. “We’re not even close to 100 percent of our kindergarteners coming in with these skills. That means it is likely or possible that kindergarteners are coming to us one to three years behind already.”

The new hire will work with local preschools and preschool students. “So when we get these students, we’ll know exactly where they’re functioning” and can staff accordingly, Stickler said.

school board member Brian Clay said he wanted to see a description of the job and scope of duties, and said long-term funding should be in place. “There’s no sustainability in this.”

Replied Byer: “There is a start in this. We’ll see how we can keep it going… Some of the (job) details still have to be worked out, but in the interest of staffing, we have to get this rolling.” He said there was a “strong urgency” because addressing the reading problem is part of the district’s strategic plan.

Board member Nelle Greene and junior high teacher Lisa Andriesen also spoke in favor. “Everything (students) struggle with boils down to their reading.”

The district paid about $24,000 last year for Fast ForWord, a computer-based system for improving reading skills.

Byer said the costs of two hours of open gym Sunday included $15.69 per hour for a gym supervisor and $25.25 per hour for a person to watch the hall, plus $23.11 for an hour of custodial work. The hall-watcher is required due to a fire marshall’s decision that the district could no longer draw a gate across the main hallway in the high school.

“I think it’s sad we can’t use it. I think it’s bad for the town,” said Joe Parnell, who has requested the change. “I was hoping for support from the school board, but if you’re not interested, I guess you can’t fight city hall.”

Board chair Carol Kelly said, “I think the dollars are the issue… I think it’s a matter of do we allocate the dollars to the community or to the children.” Member Sean Cone suggested Parnell seek funding from the borough assembly, which funds open gym as part of the school’s Community Education program.

Anne Marie Palmieri was the only member openly supporting the proposal. “I think the borough does give us a substantial amount of money and I think we can find $3,000 to open the gym on Sunday. The community supports the school by paying taxes and there are many people who don’t have children in the school district and aren’t employed by the school district.”

Chair Kelly said the topic could be discussed again when the board takes up the budget for the coming school year.

Waiving the school bus contract performance bond will save the district money. Bigfoot Auto holds the current, multi-year contract. The waiver was extended to Southeast Roadbuilders, which previously held the bus contract.

Member Brian Clay, who works for Bigfoot, abstained from the vote.