FAIRBANKS -- The Fairbanks North Star Borough School Board cut 60.5 jobs and sliced $11 million Wednesday from its spending plan for the next fiscal year, though it opted to include a letter asking the borough Assembly to restore $7 million of the cuts with local property taxes.
"This is a starvation budget," said board member Mike O'Brien. "It cuts things back to where I question their feasibility. The silver lining of this budget, if there is one, is that class sizes were preserved. But we just stabbed the arts, library, music, nursing, behavioral aides. Those are vital parts of children's education."
O'Brien said the budget is an honest assessment of what revenues the district expects will be available, as it includes a $3.4 million reduction from funds proposed to be cut by Gov. Bill Walker. In Anchorage, the school board did not trim spending in response to the Walker plan because the cut is not official.
"We didn't kid people. I think that's what Anchorage did and maybe they'll prove me wrong," he said. O'Brien said it is responsible to prepare for the budget cuts as they appear likely, though it is true that the exact funding level from the state and the borough are not known.
About one-third of the job reductions approved by the board are teachers, principals and counselors. The rest are a variety of administrative and support positions. Of the teaching positions, 11.5 are being cut because of declining enrollment. The budget also added four positions to the human resources department.
The recommended budget is $274.8 million, down from $278.3 million this fiscal year. Before approving the budget the board held an extended discussion on whether some of the cuts could be reversed by applying a salary freeze to all district employees. An early estimate put the cost of salary increases at $3.9 million.
"I don't feel right about cutting so many programs that we could save through a salary freeze," said board member Lisa Gentry. "We're not the first that's thought about it. We may be the first to actually do it. I think we owe it to our kids."
The board has received a legal opinion from the borough attorney saying that raises approved by the school board in existing labor agreements are not necessarily binding, as the funding of a contract "rests in the discretion of the school board."
If the board chose to apply a salary freeze under the assumption that it has the discretion of not paying, it would likely prompt charges of unfair labor practices from the unions and immediate court challenges. The unions are certain to argue that the board has approved the raises and that the contracts are binding.
In the end, the board approved the budget without dealing with the salary freeze idea, though Gentry said it may come up in May after the revenue figures from the borough and Legislature are clarified. O'Brien said that the notion of a salary freeze had only been discussed in passing in recent weeks and that it was not right to consider moving forward with the idea without giving people a chance to comment.
"I suspect had this been a topic of consideration we would have heard some testimony, likely from staff and teachers," he said. "I'm hesitant to do anything without giving people that sort of access to comment on this."