Tuesday night, in front of a packed crowd, the Common Council voted in a budget for Nome Public Schools that keeps funding flat from last year.
“The final numbers,” read City Clerk Tom Moran, “total $2,042,880.”
That’s what the city agrees to give to the schools in addition to outside funding from the state and federal programs.
In the tricky way that budgets factor inflation and changing funding sources, the council’s allotment is consistent with what they’ve given the last few years—around 60% of the state’s funding cap. But a work session last Friday raised the possibility of funding at just 33% of the cap–something educators mobilized to avoid.
And it worked. Last night every seat and most of the standing room in council chambers was filled with parents, teachers, and school board members—many of whom spoke about what low funding would do to their classrooms and kids.
“We based and planned our budget on this six-year average and the needs of our students,” school superintendent Steve Gast told the council. “Nowhere in our planning did we anticipate the city would decide to drop that contribution to 33%–almost a 50% reduction in support in one year. I believe this to be unreasonable and irresponsible. If the city wants the school district to tighten its belt, that’s one thing—to cripple it is another. I believe this will have a devastating effect on our school and our programs.”
The council’s 4-2 vote for more school funding is not a silver bullet. The district will still have to dip deep into its savings for the third year in a row. And that’s after years of cuts due to stagnant state funding and rising costs.
But Council members insisted the city is dealing with many of the same problems.
“We modified our budget and just played with numbers to go ‘Look we made money,’ but we haven’t made money,” said councilman Matt Culley. “No offense to the school when it goes this way, but we have a way bigger budget than they do, and our fund balance is less than theirs.”
The council voted to raise the mill rate from 11 mills to 12 as a way to fund the newly approved school budget. The increase means that if someone owns a $100,000 home and paid $1,100 last year in property taxes, this year that will bump up to $1,200. Homeowners will shoulder a 9% rate increase to pay for part of the schools’ operating costs.
Still, it doesn’t fill the gap in the city budget. The council’s vote last night essentially settled school funding by upending the city’s operating budget and agreeing to sort things out in the next few weeks. Funding the schools at the current level means the city has to hope proposals for higher taxes on alcohol and tobacco, along with a seasonal tax, get the support of voters this fall. Otherwise, new revenue sources will have to be conjured up.
Mayor Denise Michels explained that no one is very happy with Nome’s current financial outlook.
“The city’s budget that we presented this year is a lot less than last year, so every one of the departments took a hit. And then additionally the council went through and took even more out. So, I mean, it’s a tough year,” Michels said towards the end of the meeting.
While one budget battle ended last night, the difficult task of balancing the city’s finances is just beginning in earnest.