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Nome Schools Again Pins JROTC Funding Hopes on Sitnasuak Donation

Air Force JROTC cadets from North Pole High School in December 2014. Photo: U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Joseph Swafford.

Nome’s Junior ROTC program narrowly skated under the knife at a recent school board meeting, but funding the program in the future—and even the upcoming year—is still uncertain and hotly debated.

For the past eight years, Sitnasuak Native Corporation has funded most, if not all, the costs of running the Junior Reserve Officer Training Corp at Nome-Beltz: essentially salary and benefits for two Army instructors. That cost has been increasing, and is now above what the district can afford. Once again this year, the NPS Nome Public Schools requested a donation from SNC of $150,000.

If all or some of that money doesn’t come in, the JROTC program would be left unfunded. At the school board meeting Tuesday, July 14, NPS Superintendent Shawn Arnold proposed a “just in case” motion that asked the board to pay the difference if full funding didn’t come through from SNC.

The request hit a nerve for some board members, including Jennifer Reader. If funding doesn’t come through, she said the district would essentially be agreeing to pay for a $150,000 program in its entirety.

“We’ve already had this discussion, I don’t know how many times,” Reader said. “We had this discussion last year … We do not have this kind of money to fund this program. We don’t even have the kind of money to fund the difference of said program. At this point, I made the motion, but I am not going to say yes to this motion.”

While Reader said JROTC is a valuable program and the board appreciates Sitnasuak’s contributions to preserve it each year, she added that it’s simply too much money to set aside when the district’s fiscal future looks grim.

Arnold said several SNC committees have already approved a donation of $100,000, but that still leaves the district on the hook for part of the cost.

“That’s another $50,000 that we have to come up with this time, and what are we gonna do again next year?” Reader asked.

“This program has been on a hope and a prayer every single year,” she added, “I am floored that we have still gone this far without coming up with a different plan with ROTC considering we don’t have it in our budget today.”

Arnold agreed that the district needs to think ahead, instead of putting all their eggs in the basket of one organization’s generosity.

“We have to do a better job of ensuring the funds are in place,” Arnold said. “This is a program where the costs have crept up and it doesn’t look like the costs are going down any time soon.

Looking forward, the school district can consider additional funding sources to preserve JROTC without a great draw from the district. But with such late notice this year, Arnold advised it would be unwise to axe the program.

Board member Paula Davis agreed.

“What are we doing for our students? Are we going to cut the program and say ‘sorry, too bad.’ If our students don’t know they’re not going to have a program next year although they’ve been getting ready for it from 9th grade—now they’re in 11th grade,” she said. “Oh my gosh, it’s not going to happen this year?

Board member Barb Amarok said she’s in favor of funding teaching positions, and would rather see cuts made in the administration.

Ultimately, the board opted to amend the original motion and voted 4-1 to approve the remaining funding for JROTC contingent upon receipt of $100,000 from Sitnasuak. If Sitnasuak’s donation comes through, that means the school could pay up to $50,000 to keep the program. If the donation does not come through, the majority of board members said they cannot consider paying for the program next year.

The approved budget has the district taking only $100,000 out of fund balance next year, but that’s a savings thanks to excess money in the transportation fund and this year’s insurance rebate. Business Manager Paula Coffman says that savings can’t be expected in the future.

“I guess I’m just cautioning you, … but this is not a realistic number going into the future,” Coffman said. “We actually have $350,000 to the good just based on those pieces of candy [in the form of one-time rebates] that fell our way. And even with that, we’re still ending up taking $118,000 from fund balance. Not to paint a bleak picture, because it’s a great picture right now, but that’s not going to happen every year.”

For now, the board will be waiting on the JROTC donation to finalize their decision.

Paula Coffman also announced at the close of the meeting that she will be leaving the district soon to take care of her mom.

The board’s next meeting will be Tuesday, August 11.