Anchorage — The Anchorage School Board added back eight high school counselors that were proposed to be cut, then approved a $720 million budget for the 2013-2014 school year Thursday night that follows Superintendent Jim Browder's recommendations.
Instead of eliminating the counselor positions, the district will cut eight teacher jobs, six in high schools and two in middle schools. The teacher jobs were proposed additions for next year, not existing positions.
Browder recommended restoring the counselor positions to help students graduate, get into college or go after other post-secondary opportunities, and apply for scholarships and mentorships. Public testimony helped convince the superintendent to take another look at the proposed reduction, he said.
The district is still eliminating all eight high school career resource advisors, who provided many of those services, and all eight graduation support coordinators, who helped kids in danger of not graduating.
Altogether, the new budget calls for cutting some 200 positions, including 90 that were vacated this school year. The job cuts are to help make up a $25 million shortfall from what it would cost to continue services at the same level. The district is also planning to spend $7 million from savings to soften the blow from the shortfall.
The district gets most of its money from the state. Based on Gov. Sean Parnell's proposed state budget, the district is expecting the same level of funding next year as this year. Meantime, expenses are rising.
"Our current budget situation isn't realistic," said board member Gretchen Guess. "We have a Legislature right now that isn't supportive of education funding."
"We're going to have to advocate for providing adequate funding" for schools, Browder said.
"We're going through an awful process," said board member Don Smith. More cuts are expected in years to come, he said. "It's going to destroy our school district."
Browder generally focused on keeping classroom teachers, but eliminating support staff like teaching assistants, teacher experts and counselors.
The administration looked at how Anchorage staffing levels compared to other districts Outside, and found that Anchorage was high in some support categories including teaching assistants and counselors, and low in teachers.
Browder has been eliminating positions through what he calls "managed attrition," with selected jobs eliminated as people quit or retire. The district is still expecting some layoffs though.
In public hearings Feb. 4 and Thursday night, scores of people told the board that the positions up for elimination were valuable. About 50 spoke at the first public hearing, many of them supporting counselors, graduation coaches and career resource advisors.
The argument: Like teachers, counselors are central to the district's mission.
Others asked the board not to reduce mentorship and gifted student programs.
About half as many signed up to testify Thursday night, and they spoke on the same themes.
Donna McCarrey, a retired teacher, said she came Thursday to prevent the School Board from making a terrible mistake -- the idea of cutting counselors.
McCarrey told a story about one of her students who tried to see a counselor, but found a line of students, and then tried to see McCarrey, but there were also students surrounding McCarrey's desk. McCarrey asked the student to wait, but she left. McCarrey and the counselor went to the student's house and found her on the floor.
"She had taken sleeping pills."
McCarrey said she kept the letter the student wrote her "to remind me that some students need help now."
"If you're going to cut someone, cut a non-contact person," she said, suggesting the district cut assistant principals that are in charge of furniture, among other things.
Government Hill Elementary School PTA president Robert Stolzman told the board they need to help change the paradigm in Juneau, to get the state to make more money available.
Anchorage teacher's union president Andy Holleman also asked the board members to speak out more, and get the word out that "overall we're functioning well."
Reach Rosemary Shinohara at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4340.