The Alaska Legislature continues to wrestle with a deficit of billions as lawmakers try to come up with a budget. Education funding got a big cut last week by a Senate committee, and the Ketchikan School District is keeping its own budget flexible in the face of ever-changing funding levels.

Ketchikan School District Superintendent Robert Boyle said drafting the coming year’s budget each spring is a lot like surfing – trying to stay on top of a constantly shifting wave, “and this year’s probably been the most surfing that we’ve had. A couple low tides, couple extra rocks. Maybe a shark or two out there.”

One of those sudden low tides occurred when the Senate Finance Committee cut the equivalent of $200 per student from the base student allocation, “Which, calculated for our school district, comes out to be a negative $914,000,” Boyle said. “So it’s a significant hit.”

And that’s just the latest hit. State funding for public education already had been cut in the governor’s budget, and that meant $611,000 less for Ketchikan schools.

So, get the calculator out and that means the district is facing just shy of $1.5 million in funding cuts from the state.

And, until recently, the district also was facing a loss of federal Secure Rural Schools funding.

Secure Rural Schools helps pay for programs in communities that are surrounded by federally owned land, which can’t be taxed. The federal program wasn’t going to be renewed this year, but, an amendment restoring it recently passed a big hurdle.

“That’s perhaps the only good news we’ve had for a week or so,” Boyle said. “The Secure Rural School has passed through the House with a two-year plan. Now it still has to go in front of the Senate, so it’s not done by any means, but historically the Senate has been positive in terms of Secure Rural Schools funding.”

That would mean about $900,000 for the Ketchikan Gateway Borough, and Boyle said that would help.

“Yeah, it would offset this last round,” he said. “But we were counting on it to offset the first round, so we’re still in a real difficult situation.”

Boyle said the Ketchikan School District uses a program-based budget process, which allows administrators to build a budget even when funding is uncertain.

“If we get funded to a certain level, this is what we do. If we don’t, then we make the cuts according to our priorities that are established with the budgeting process,” he said.

Basically, that means items at the top of the budget have the highest priority. As funding tightens up, items near the bottom of the list are the first to be cut.

Boyle said the focus this year is staff over stuff, so items they’re looking at cutting include things like new math curriculum. That doesn’t mean no positions will be affected, though. Also lower on the list are some teaching positions that would be new additions, as well as the Native arts and Tribal Scholars programs.

Depending on what happens with funding, some items in the middle of the prioritized list could end up getting cut, too, and that would lead to lost jobs. Those jobs include the dean of students and a teacher at the middle school, the counselor and two teachers at the high school, and the elementary music and library programs.

But it’s all still up in the air until the Legislature wraps up later this month.

“We’ll have to just see what comes out of the legislative session to begin with, and then we’ll have to see what sort of support we can gather from the borough to compensate for some of these significant cuts at the state level,” he said.

The Ketchikan School Board has two public hearings on the draft FY16 budget this month. The School Board must adopt a budget and submit it for review to the Borough Assembly by May 1.

The first public hearing on the proposed FY16 Ketchikan School District budget is set for this Wednesday, at the beginning of the School Board’s regular meeting. That meeting starts at 6 p.m. in Borough Assembly chambers.