School Board hears support for targeted programs

January 26, 2011 

About two dozen people testified at the Anchorage School Board Wednesday night about potential cuts to next year's budget, arguing mainly to keep all the high school secretaries, middle school interscholastic sports and middle school career counselors.

The administration has proposed an $812 million budget that calls for significant cutbacks in jobs and programs.

The cuts would be the biggest in years -- scaling back summer schools, cutting out interscholastic sports for middle schools, reducing the number of high school secretaries and eliminating library media assistants, among other positions.

The recommendations are based on an expectation of a funding shortfall in the 2011-12 school year.

The board began considering the proposal Wednesday, but is to hold another public hearing and make final decisions Feb. 3

Most of those testifying were school employees.

East High secretary Brenda Lannen protested the idea that new student management software called Zangle means high schools can make do with fewer secretaries.

The administration recommended cutting one secretary from each comprehensive high school.

"I'm concerned, offended and upset at the idea of eliminating secretaries at the high schools," she said. In fact, the software for student accounting causes more work, she said.

Three high school principals spoke on behalf of maintaining clerical staff as well.

Of all the cuts, said East High principal Mike Graham. "This one has to be most upsetting." The secretaries do more than anyone to provide good customer service, he said.

After the testimony, Superintendent Carol Comeau said keeping the school secretaries is at the top of her list, if any cuts are restored.

She said she would be willing to consider a small increase in class sizes to add back the clerical positions and restore some other positions and programs.

Some district employees discussed the value of "career guides" in middle schools, a program started last year. Sean Murphy, a career guide or counselor at Begich Middle School, said he tries to help students answer the questions: "Who am I? Where am I going? And how am I going to get there?"

The administration recommends keeping the career counselors, which were added with federal stimulus money.

Teachers union president Jim Lepley made a pitch for teacher jobs over technology. "You can throw smartboards, iPads and other gadgets" at students, he said, "But the bottom line is how much time does the teacher have to spend with the child."

Others, including Romig Middle eighth-grader Lydia Blanchet, told the board it would be a mistake to shrink middle school sports. The administration has recommended eliminating interscholastic sports at middle schools, leaving them with a smaller intramural program.

The budget proposal includes $645.1 million for the general fund, used for daily operating expenses. That's a 2.9 percent rise over this year, but falls millions short of the money needed to continue programs at the same level, say district officials. The $812 million total includes debt service and food service funds.

While about the same number of students attend each year -- 49,000 -- costs are rising due to inflation and increases in salaries and benefits, district officials say.

The district expects flat funding from the state, which provides more than half of the district's operating fund money. And the Anchorage Assembly has already voted to support just a 1.6 percent increase in local property taxes, the other big source of school funding.

After the School Board approves a budget, it goes to the Assembly, which sets the spending limit.

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