School District views stimulus money as a one-shot boost

$76 MILLION: Technology and pilot programs will be funded.

June 23, 2009 

Unlike many school districts around the country facing budget shortfalls, Anchorage schools are treating federal stimulus money as a windfall, using most of it to pay for long-dreamed-of upgrades and to experiment with pilot programs aimed at long-standing problems.

Federal stimulus funds will be used to pay $21 million for technology upgrades -- mostly wireless Internet; $7 million for building projects; $4 million for new books and other learning materials; and $19 million for the staffing, development and outfitting of anti-dropout programs over the next two years.

The Anchorage School Board earmarked its federal funds at a meeting Monday night. On Tuesday, the U.S. Department of Education approved Alaska's application for the money.

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act will funnel $100 billion nationwide into early childhood education, public schools and colleges, the largest one-time influx of funding ever into the educational system.

Other states and school districts, beset by recession-caused drops in tax collections, are using the money to prevent teacher layoffs, plug holes in budgets and, generally, help weather the economic downturn.

Alaska, only mildly affected so far by the bad economy, is expecting $170 million in K-12 education money.

The state is already giving school districts more money per pupil than last year. The stimulus money is going directly to the districts and is being treated as a bonus.

"It's a function of how the state is fiscally situated," said assistant superintendent Rhonda Gardner.

The Anchorage School District's budget this year is $738 million. Next year's budget was originally approved for an increase to $760 million. It is now $849 million, including its $76 million share of the stimulus money, plus some other smaller increases in funding sources. None of the increase will affect local taxes, Comeau said.

The stimulus money will be used to hire 70 new teachers and create 60 support and teacher aid positions for Anchorage schools.

In March, Gov. Sarah Palin threatened to reject the $170 million for Alaska. Among her reasons was a concern that it would put a burden on the state and districts after the one-shot money dried up in two years. She reversed her decision after the public weighed in during legislative hearings.

"We understand this is two-year money," Anchorage School District Superintendent Carol Comeau said this week. "We are not going to go back to the Legislature and ask them to fill in the gap."

Comeau oversees the largest public school district in the state, with 50,000 students. One of the district's biggest problems is that one in five high-schoolers quits before graduating.

The $76 million total coming to Anchorage -- to be used over two years -- is composed of money from different pots, including some designated for special-needs kids and schools with economically disadvantaged students.

The pot labeled "state fiscal stabilization fund" has the fewest restrictions. It's mostly those monies that will pay for the long-standing needs and pilot programs.

"Everyone is totally committed to how to keep more kids in school," Comeau said. "We want them to get a diploma. We don't want them dropping out to get a GED."

She said initiatives at all levels -- even before children enter school -- are aimed at the high dropout rate in high school. The problem starts early with kids falling behind or losing motivation, educators say.

The pilot programs, which include career counselors, more testing of student skills and more online learning opportunities, will be evaluated to see if they make a difference. If yes, the district will consider cuts elsewhere to fund them beyond the two-year mark, the superintendent said.

"It's a wonderful opportunity to move forward on some of our ideas," assistant superintendent Gardner said.

Find Megan Holland online at adn.com/contact/mholland or call 257-4343.

Outfit all schools with wireless Internet. Currently only about 20 have it. Fund in-school suspensions for middle and high school.Hire 10 new counselors in middle schools specifically focused on getting kids to think about post-graduation college or job plans.Pay for materials needed to open six new preschools at Russian Jack, Gladys Wood, William Tyson, Alaska Native Charter School, Creekside Park and Willow Crest. Other state and local funds are being used for this also. Fund parent "outreach activities." The details have not been worked out but the district is talking about teachers doing after-school home visits or English language classes for parents.Reinstate cutbacks made to summer school this year.

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