Ketchikan’s borough offices are in the White Cliff Building (KRBD staff photo)

Ketchikan’s school board finalized its budget for the 2022-2023 school year Wednesday. The board passed the $42.6 million budget over objections from some teachers and students, as well as the borough mayor, who weighed in during public comment. Ketchikan’s borough assembly is scheduled to consider the school district’s spending plan Monday evening.

School district officials say the budget presented to the board was an effort to address learning loss and proficiency by filling vacant teacher, administrator and staff positions and adding new school district jobs.

But some students and teachers who spoke to the board Wednesday decried what they described as a lack of resources for the district’s program for English language learners. Ketchikan High School teacher Sarah Campbell said in recent years, the district had eliminated a dedicated English as a second language teaching position for students in the district’s middle and high schools.

“When you discuss and later vote on tonight’s budget, I will urge you to add a full time secondary ESL teacher at Kayhi (Ketchikan High School) and Schoenbar (Middle School),” Campbell told the board.

The president of Ketchikan High School’s Fil-Am cultural club, Zarina Cabillo, told the board that she thought it was critical for those learning English not only to have a dedicated teacher, but a dedicated space.

“We had our own room back in 2019. It was a room where (ESL teacher) Mr. Asper would bring new immigrants in and introduce them to us, because we feel more comfortable with starting a new life with people that know how it feels, and know how hard it is to be far from home,” she said.

Interim superintendent Melissa Johnson said that up until early 2020, the middle and high school had shared a single certified teacher that had a classroom in both buildings. But she said her predecessor in the job had reduced the district’s spending on the English language learners program. 

“They felt like they wanted to change the way they did the resource allocation, and that they felt like potentially the resources weren’t used in a way that was equitable to all students,” Johnson said.

More recently, an English teacher at Schoenbar Middle School has been tasked with handling the ESL program on top of his regular duties. Johnson said that the district planned to hire a teacher’s aide assigned to the high school in the coming year to fill the gap left by the change.

School board member Diane Gubatayao suggested returning to the previous setup.

“I would really, truly like this board to consider restoring it to the program that was originally two years ago and a dedicated staff person at Kayhi that can also serve Schoenbar, but there at Kayhi the majority of the day,” she said.

Johnson defended the budget as written. She said administrators had cleared their plan with federal education officials to ensure the district was serving students learning English in line with federal civil rights law.

“We’re way off of minimum requirements. That’s one thing — when we were looking at the structure of ELL, we called all the other districts and figured out what they’re using, and there’s all different ideas and all different plans, and by far, we’re utilizing the most resources,” Johnson said.

The district’s business manager told the board that funding for the English language learners program in next year’s budget was up about 10% from pre-pandemic levels and roughly equal to the district’s current spending on the program.

Board member Paul Robbins Jr. said he wasn’t convinced that the program needed more funding.

“What are we discussing increasing the budget for the program for, if we don’t have evidence of poor performance or downgraded performance over the past three years?” Robbins said.

The board ultimately failed to come to a consensus on changes to the district’s program for English language learners and left the budget untouched.

Another objection to the budget came from Borough Mayor Rodney Dial. He took issue with the board’s plan to ask the borough for $1.1 million in funding to pay down a deficit in the school district’s health insurance program. He said the school district should pass on half of the cost to teachers in upcoming contract negotiations.

“If you want to send a half-million one-time request, I would certainly, just speaking for me, be supportive of looking at that, and then looking at negotiating your increased health care needs in the upcoming contract,” Dial said.

But School Board President Stephen Bradford assured Dial that the budget request was intended to deal with short-term costs.

“Certainly in my mind, this is a one-time ask,” Bradford said.

Ketchikan’s borough assembly is scheduled to consider the school district’s budget, along with the rest of the borough budget, Monday evening.

In other business, a proposal to give elected officials a raise is back on the table after it was deferred earlier this year. The measure  would double the mayor’s pay to $1,000 a month and raise assembly members’ monthly stipends from $150 to $500. It would be elected officials’ first pay bump since 1999, according to the borough. Assembly members have pitched the pay increase as a way to make elected office more accessible for people living paycheck-to-paycheck.

Ketchikan’s borough assembly is scheduled to meet at 5:30 p.m. Monday in the White Cliff building. There’s time for public comment at the beginning of the meeting. The meeting is broadcast on local cable channels and live-streamed at the borough’s website.