Potential teacher layoffs spark community response

As the Alaska House of Representatives struggled to pass an omnibus education bill, Nome Public School Board met for a regular meeting, hearing from frustrated teachers and community members as the board grapples with the specter of cutting personnel to balance an underfunded budget.
The Nome Elementary School Library was a full house last Tuesday night, one day after Superintendent Jamie Burgess sent out an email to all of Nome Public School’s certified staff warning them of an impending “reduction in force” in April.
During their meeting the school board approved the 2024-2025 contracts for 49 teachers across the NPS’s four schools. If the Alaska Legislature doesn’t pass a budget giving the district more funds some of those teachers will be laid off, notified immediately after the April 25 final budget work session.
“If additional funding is then added by the Legislature subsequent to the layoff notices, we will issue recall notices as soon as possible,” Burgess wrote in her letter.
Two days after the meeting, the House passed Senate Bill 140, a package education bill originally addressing internet bandwidth in schools. The bill increased the per-student funding by $680, marking the first increase since 2016 and the largest increase historically. On Monday February 26 the Alaska Senate concurred with the changes to the bill. It now awaits final approval from Governor Mike Dunleavy, he already signaled his displeasure with the bill. In a press conference earlier this month Dunleavy said he will override a bill that only increases the base student allocation without including comprehensive provisions for charter schools or bonuses for teachers, additions to the bill that were voted out by the House.
Nome’s Representative Neal Foster who voted to support the bill, wrote in an email to the Nugget, “It’s hard to say what the Governor will do. He could sign this bill, (SB140) which changes the education funding formula. But he could also reduce the funding in the budget bill.  If history is any indication then I would encourage folks to contact his office to express their support for education.”
In an email to the Nugget, Burgess commented on the potential increase saying it would likely mean NPS wouldn’t have to eliminate positions, but “other budget measures are still required, including asking the City for an increase in their local contribution, redirecting revenue from our apartment building into the general fund, and spending down our Capital Improvement Fund without replenishment.”
Many teachers addressed the school board during the public comment period of the meeting, with emotional testimonials about the struggles currently faced without any cuts to the staff and how the letter warning of reduction in force made them feel.
“Quite frankly, that letter felt like it was sent yesterday to encourage our staff, who are some of the most gifted and talented educators I’ve ever worked with in this district, to encourage them to leave, when already we cannot find and retain staff, is outrageous,” Keane Richards, teacher at Anvil City Science Academy said.
Principal of Nome-Beltz Middle High School Teriscovkya Smith, stepped up to the podium. “I want job security for my staff,” she said. “I want them to be passionate about setting roots in Nome. I want them excited about learning opportunities and vibrant courses. This spring, I want to recruit in a way that doesn’t make me feel like a used car salesman, hiding the parts of the engine that don’t work. I don’t want to sell a lemon. I want to sell Nome Public Schools and I want to sell Nome-Beltz,” Smith said.
Some brought up NPS’s general and Apartment funds, which contain savings the district holds onto in the event a project gets funding, or the employee apartments need repairs. Burgess said in an interview with the Nugget the board is considering dipping into those funds, but it isn’t sustainable. “The only solution is increased funding to education, otherwise we’re just going to be having this conversation every year,” Burgess said.
Rosa Wright, teacher at Nome-Beltz and coach of the ski team emphasized in her public comment the need for the school board to stand up for teachers. “We spend eight hours a day or more advocating for kids,” she said. “I don’t have the time to advocate for myself, you as well as our community should be screaming from the rooftops to advocate for us.”
Burgess responded to this in her concluding comments with a promise to work harder to share the narrative of Nome with the community and legislators.
“I know that this is demoralizing. That’s a reality. Nobody wants to be told you might not have a job next year. And for those that have been teaching here a long time and fairly confident that their job is not going to be impacted, their lives will still be impacted if we have to remove teachers from the classroom, because it’s not like they’re gonna have any less work to do,” Burgess said during the meetings conclusion.
Burgess, School Board President Darlene Trigg, student Lyndsay Johnson and Student Council Advisor Holly Harlow traveled to Juneau earlier this month, speaking with Nome’s legislative representatives. Trigg said they walked the halls of the Capitol building, talking to anyone they could about the need to increase the per-student funding amount to match the rate of inflation, for Nome a $1320 increase is necessary to have no cuts to staff.  
“Please know that I’m not one to back down from a fight. And I’m gonna fight as hard as I can in every way that I can,” Trigg said during the meeting.
The meeting concluded with a somber air, the next budget discussion taking place March 5.

The Nome Nugget

PO Box 610
Nome, Alaska 99762
USA

Phone: (907) 443-5235
Fax: (907) 443-5112

www.nomenugget.net

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