The Ketchikan School District seal on display at the superintendent’s office. (KRBD file photo by Leila Kheiry)

Ketchikan’s school district budget for the coming school year is set to face its first vote on Wednesday.

Superintendent Michael Robbins says the $40.1 million budget cuts a total of 48 positions from the district’s payroll. But he says the district does not plan to lay off any current staff — instead, Robbins says the district will shrink through retirements and attrition, and he says some low-performing teachers’ contracts will not be renewed.

The reduction in staff comes as enrollment at Ketchikan’s schools continues to decline. Enrollment peaked in 2017 at just shy of 2,300 students, according to state data, and the district is projecting just over 2,000 students for the coming year. Robbins says the reduction in staff reflects that trend.

“Essentially, getting right-sized as a school district so that we can move forward and be fiscally responsible,” Robbins said by phone Tuesday.

The district is budgeting for 20 fewer teachers next year. Robbins says he expects elementary school class sizes to rise to roughly 17 students per teacher, up from 15. At the middle and high school level, Robbins says he expects the  student-to-teacher ratio to be 20-to-one, up from 18.

The budget requests the maximum legal contribution of $12.4 million from the Ketchikan Gateway Borough. The borough and state share responsibility for school funding.

The district’s budget also anticipates a $100 increase in the state’s per-student funding. If state funding is not increased, the district warns that further cuts may be necessary.

But state funding remains up in the air.  The Alaska House recently greenlit a one-time increase of $175 million in education funding. That would be roughly equivalent to an $860 increase in per-student funding, according to the Alaska Beacon. But it’s unclear where education funding will land once the House and Senate finish budget negotiations later this spring.

Robbins says he would prefer that the Legislature increase per-student funding on an ongoing basis.

“Then, we could long-term budget, long-term plan. What we have cycling off of grants, we could fund in the general fund, and (we could) have a little bit of a more of a three- to five-year fiscal plan,” Robbins said.

“Can you imagine if as a district, we could make a five year plan, and have that educationally based and know that we have the money there to do that?” said Sarah Campbell, the president of the Ketchikan Education Association, the union representing teachers, aides and staff in Ketchikan’s school district. “I think that would have huge impacts.”

Campbell says uncertainty over how much state and borough funding will be available makes it difficult for school districts to plan and equip teachers with the resources they need.

“The social-emotional needs of the students in our classroom (are) growing, and so educators are tasked with a lot more than just teaching content,” Campbell said. “I’ve been teaching 23 years, and the job just continues to grow and grow.”

Ketchikan’s school board is set to take its first vote on the budget on Wednesday.

In other business, the board is set to vote on a new contract for Ketchikan’s teachers. The new three-year deal raises salaries by 2.5% per year. Campbell says she’s pleased with what she described as “collaborative” negotiations.

“It was a fair process,” she said. “I feel like it ended in a good deal for both sides. We have a very student-centered contract, and I feel like the district’s goals and the Education Association’s goals were aligned in the sense that we want to attract quality teachers to teach here, and we want to retain quality educators in our community.”

Though the district’s health insurance costs have ballooned in recent years, the deal maintains employees’ premiums at 10% of the overall expected cost of insurance and limits premium increases to 2% a year. That’s in line with the current policy.

Robbins says he’s satisfied with the new contract.

“We really did a good job of coming together and making something that’s going to work for all of us,” he said.

Ketchikan’s school board is scheduled to vote on the contract on Wednesday.

Ketchikan’s school board meets at 6 p.m. Wednesday in the White Cliff Building on First Avenue. The meeting is broadcast on the Ketchikan Gateway Borough’s website and local cable channels. Members of the public can address the board at the beginning of the meeting.