Anchorage School District finds solutions to budget deficit
by YARROW SILVERS THIS ARTICLE IS PUBLISHED IN BOTH SPANISH AND ENGLISH IN A COLLABORATION BETWEEN THE ALASKA CURRENT AND SOL DE MEDIANOCHE.
Anchorage School Board members discussed a reduction of about $20 million to the district’s $68 million budget deficit during a Saturday work session, but tough decisions about how to overcome the remaining shortfall still loom. The $20 million came from an unexpected increase in revenues, the municipality covering the cost of student resource officers assigned to schools, and one-time federal funds. This leaves ASD with $48 million still to make up.
No votes were taken during the work session, however the board came to near consensus on lowering the deficit by an additional $28.3 million, by reducing the district’s fund balance to 8%. District policy currently requires a minimum fund balance of 8%, but unfilled positions have resulted in higher reserves. This buys time while a long-term funding solution is determined.
School districts around the state are facing financial woes because the state funding of education has not kept up with inflation. Since 2017, per-pupil funding has increased by about .5% while inflation has increased about 22%. According to Board Member Carl Jacobs, continued lack of action from the legislature will result in a budget deficit of over $80 million by 2025. The school district is asking for an inflation-adjusted increase of $860 per student. Without additional funding, districts will have to look at cutting programs, teachers and closing schools.
The School Board also came to consensus on proposed cuts to administration and operations, which would save another $3.5 million, and cutting the ASD online program for K-5. Several members expressed interest in deeper cuts to ASD online, which began as a response to COVID-19.
Most board members agreed with a plan to increase class sizes by an average of one student. This would decrease teaching staff by 60 district wide and save $7 million. Because of the large number of teacher vacancies, this wouldn’t have an immediate noticeable impact, but would prevent some open positions from being filled. School board members also said that class sizes could be reduced again if the legislature increased funding.
The district is also considering closing several schools, which could be necessary simply because the district has seen a significant drop in student population. However, member Andy Holleman said closures should be part of a long-term plan to increase efficiency rather than a reaction to immediate budget issues. He expressed the importance of having a plan of support for relocated students.
Of the six schools proposed for closure, near consensus was only reached on one – Abbott Loop Elementary. Abbott Loop Elementary needs extensive maintenance and repair, and the building may end up being demolished. Closure would save the district close to $1 million in the first year.
The School Board is still looking at other cost-saving measures, including moving the IGNITE gifted program online and moving 6th grade students into middle school district wide. ASD administration is preparing a memo of the issues discussed Saturday, which the school board is expected to vote on Dec. 19.
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