Board approves lean Anchorage School District budget with deep staff reductions

dkelly@adn.comFebruary 20, 2014 

The Anchorage School Board unanimously approved the district's 2014-15 budget Thursday, passing amendments to restore some paid positions and postponing a controversial measure to move comprehensive high schools to a seven-period schedule.

The seven-member board voted to use reserve funds to restore positions for 16 teachers and three counselors, slightly lessening deep staff reductions to cover a $23 million shortfall. In all, 200 positions will be eliminated in the upcoming school year.

The district's budget now heads to the Anchorage Assembly for approval.

"This is not the budget that I would like to pass," board member Eric Croft said, echoing other officials. "I'm voting yes for it, but I worry about the long term consequences."

The preliminary budget proposal was unveiled a month ago. Cost-saving measures included increased class sizes, layoffs for 159 classroom teachers and 10 counselors, and an additional instructional period for secondary teachers during the school day. The board has since debated the proposal, over the course of three meetings and has fielded a steady stream of calls, emails, letters and public testimony.

Superintendent Ed Graff told the board Thursday night that district officials met with high school principals last week to discuss adding a seventh class period to high school schedules. The change, in line with the schedule already in place at middle schools, was supposed to be a way to offset decreased course offerings amid large-scale teacher layoffs.

Graff said many of the district's high school principals supported adding a seventh period, but some expressed concern about the timeline. The change was supposed to take effect in the fall.

Principals said the change "could be studied and more effectively implemented in schools if given another year," especially in light of staffing reductions, Graff said.

The decision to postpone the measure at least a year gratified those who felt that the decision to change the schedule came with too little input from teachers.

"I think the school board realized there were a lot of options out there," said Andy Holleman, president of the Anchorage Education Association, the union that represents Anchorage teachers. Holleman asked the board to postpone the schedule change at its Feb. 3 meeting.

"They listened to the community, they listened to staff, the administration went back in and did more homework on it and I think we're coming out with a solution that's better for everybody."

Natasha von Imhof, the vice president of the board, said she worried that students would choose to leave public school if decreased course offerings led to fewer electives and advanced placement classes.

"A seven-period schedule may or may not be the answer, but we now have a year to explore those opportunities," she said.

To address steep reductions in staff, Graff proposed the school district use reserve funds to restore funding for the 16 teaching positions. Later in the meeting, school board president Tam Agosti-Gisler proposed further using reserve funds to preserve three counseling positions, and asked the board to approve a policy change allowing the dip in the reserves.

The changes bring the total reduction in staffing positions down from 219 to 200. Graff said the positions will be allocated to schools that need them most.

Other elements of the budget, which will be introduced in the Assembly on March 11, include increased class sizes, one less planning period for middle school teachers, the elimination of high school swimming classes (which will not affect after-school swimming and diving), and a $1.3 million cut in supplies and materials.

From here, the school district is setting its sights on fighting for an increase in the per-student allocation from the state, which has not increased in three years. The "base student allocation" funds 57 percent of the district's operating budget. School board members and advocates also want the Legislature to proof the student funding formula against inflation.

A rally organized by the Great Alaska Schools coalition has been scheduled to take place on the lawn of the Z. J. Loussac Library at 1 p.m. on Saturday.

Editor's note: Because of an editing error, an earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that 200 Anchorage School District employees were being laid off after the board's vote Tuesday night. The board's vote only authorized the number of position reductions. The city Assembly still needs to finalize the 2014-15 budget.

Reach Devin Kelly at dkelly@adn.com or 257-4314.

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