Superintendent delivers State of Nome Schools report
By Megan Gannon
Nome Public Schools Superintendent Jamie Burgess addressed the Nome Common Council last week with a “State of the Schools” report. She told Council members and Mayor John Handeland how the district has been navigating staff shortages, rising costs, expensive repairs, flat funding levels and new requirements from the state.
A lack of staff and substitutes has led to recent school closures and reports of increasing burnout among teachers. When asked by the Council to describe the root causes of the district’s challenges in recruitment and retention, Burgess cited the pay and benefits.
“Pay is tough,” Burgess said. “Nome does not have as deep of pockets as some of the surrounding communities.”
She explained that Nome is not in a Regional Educational Attendance Area, meaning the school system must rely on the municipality to contribute funding to its budget. And the City of Nome has not contributed the maximum amount, Burgess said; rather it’s contributed almost 80 percent of that cap.
Benefits, too, are generally less competitive in Alaska than other states.
“We are the only state in the country that does not offer a defined state retirement option to public service workers,” Burgess said. She said that while the older teachers can retire with pensions, newer staff have insufficient 401(k) retirement plans that they are predicted to outlive.
Responding to questions about how the school system could potentially increase pay to make education jobs in Nome more attractive, Burgess said: “Schools are unlike a business in that we have very limited ways to increase our revenue…The majority of our funding comes from the state and the state has flat-funded us for now seven years in a row.”
That creates a budget challenge for the district overall.
“The same types of pressure that every individual is feeling right now with higher fuel costs and higher electricity costs, the school feels all of those,” Burgess said. “Everything we purchase costs more.”
Financially, the district overall faced a “double-edged sword” last year, where it saved money but largely because it couldn’t fill certain staff vacancies, Burgess said. Despite this year’s financial challenges, the district is now “in reasonable financial shape,” she said. Uncertainty looms, however, as the district awaits state funding forecasts, the results of upcoming negotiations for certified staff, and the results of the recent elections, which will likely see the re-election of Gov. Mike Dunleavy.
“[Dunleavy] has not been as much of a friend to education as we would like especially when it comes to budget, so we’ll have to see what kind of challenges will occur for us next year,” Burgess said.
An expensive project - the roof replacement at Nome-Beltz Middle/High School - was recently ranked ninth on the list of major maintenance grant priorities released this month by Alaska’s Department of Education and Early Development, or DEED for short. “We have a shot at getting it done,” Burgess said. “The challenge with that is that we have to provide a 30 percent participating share…that means the district has to take $1.7 million out of our CIP [capital improvement project fund] which is about a little more than half of our CIP fund. So that does mean we have to plan on putting money away continually in that fund the future because that’s what we use for emergency repairs.”
Other big projects—a generator replacement at Nome-Beltz, as well as a fire alarm replacement and accessibility improvements at Nome Elementary School—ranked lower on the state’s list of priorities. And smaller projects, such as replacing a loader for snow removal, addressing electrical and plumbing issues, replacing a $20,000-$30,000 dishwasher for the high school cafeteria, all add to the list of pressures on the school system’s major maintenance fund.
“We were able to last year put about $400,000 into it, but we still spent about all of it,” Burgess said.
The district has also identified a few areas where it could make improvements in its training and professional development of staff to better serve the student body, Burgess said.
“We need more trauma-informed training, more trauma-informed practices that really deals with how we handle behavioral issues in the classroom and responding in an appropriate way given what we know about what so many of our students are going through,” Burgess said. “We need some work on cultural awareness and culturally responsive curriculum and instruction work. However, it takes time for professional development for teachers to learn, for teachers to collaborate and work together, for teachers to plan and evaluate things. And teachers’ plates are feeling very full right now.”
Burgess went through the list of Nome’s schools to discuss particular highlights and challenges at each.
In her update on NES, Burgess said the new assistant principal, Nick Settle, is fitting in “extremely well,” she said. As part of its continued focus on boosting literacy, NES has implemented a new program called “Bookworms” that encourages kids to read library books. The state has pushed for Alaska’s early elementary educators to be well-versed in “science of reading” principles, or the best practices for getting kids to read, Burgess said. NES is also anticipating some changes to comply with the recently passed Alaska Reads Act, such as implementing new screening tests and crafting individual plans for students who are struggling with reading. Teachers and administrators will need some additional form of professional development in the form of college courses or other training approve by DEED, to comply with the new legislation, Burgess said. She added that she and other superintendents are trying to challenge the department’s rule that districts can’t hire any out-of-state educators that don’t have these requirements next year.
The district is one of few in the state to buck the trend of declining enrollment, Burgess said. Nome’s 10 percent increase enrollment is mostly felt in the elementary school. This has led to larger kindergarten classes, with about 23 or 24 kids, “which is higher than we would like,” Burgess said.
Staff morale is still somewhat low and stress still lingers from the pandemic, she said. “The behavioral issues with kids are not where they should be,” Burgess said, and some standardized test scores are low. Adding to the low morale are the staffing issues the district is facing, including lack of paraprofessionals for the special education program. But Burgess noted that there are more than 20 high schoolers interested in the Educators Rising program which would see them spend free hours assisting in the special education department.
In her list of positive highlights for Nome-Beltz, Burgess called out the prowess of the student athletes. The school saw recent state championship titles in boys’ basketball, girls’ wrestling and esports. Burgess acknowledged Teriscovkya Smith’s promotion from assistant principal to principal as a positive development. “She wants to be here long term,” she said. “We’ve discussed that stability in leadership is really crucial to make changes so we’re very happy to have her.” The school also added a half-time position to the middle school to address the increased enrollment in grades 6-8.
Negative student behaviors at the school, including a big increase in vaping, have continued to be a challenge, Burgess said. While the school is trying to find new ways to catch students vaping, via vape sensors in the bathrooms, the administration is also devising ways to educate students on the health consequences.
“There is a lot of misconception among our students that vaping is less dangerous than cigarettes,” Burgess said. “They’re highly, highly addictive devices.”
Principal Smith has been left without much support to deal with these behavior issues, Burgess said, after the hired vice principal pulled out of the job at the last minute this year and a behavior specialist quit early in the school year. But the school recently hired a dean of students and a new behavior specialist. Again, the lack of substitutes continues to be a challenge, though a few more substitutes have signed up in response to the district’s appeals for applications.
Of all the schools in Nome, the charter school, Anvil City Science Academy, is “probably in the best shape staffing-wise,” Burgess said. “All of their teachers came back…however there is an increase in special education students, and we really do need another paraprofessional here.”
Because parental involvement is a requirement for students to be admitted to ACSA, the school has a more “willing and ready” pool of volunteers to offer support.
Burgess also reported an increase in homeschooled students in Nome. While past years saw about 12 to 20 homeschoolers, there are now 29 Nome-based students in the extension program, she said.