Budget shortfall lowers ax on school programs

Rosemary Shinohara

Unless more revenue than expected comes in, average middle and high school class sizes in Anchorage public schools will creep upward next school year. And forget about summer school.

The Anchorage School Board approved a 2012-2013 school budget Thursday night that cut programs and people to deal with a shortfall of almost $20 million. The budget calls for spending $726.8 million, about $6 million less than this year.

The board achieved about $3.2 million in savings by raising class sizes for middle and high school students, and another $2.8 millionrejec by completely eliminating summer school at all levels.

At the same time, the board approved smaller classes for upper elementary grade school students, at a cost of about $3.3 million over what had been proposed. The result will be the lowest class sizes in about 20 years for grades four, five and six, with an average of 25.25 students in fourth and fifth grades and 26.25 in sixth, said Chad Stiteler, the district's chief financial officer.

Many cuts elsewhere in the budget made up for that cost increase.

Among the trims are eight clerical positions, none of them in schools; an education technology staffer; a position in testing and evaluation; maintenance projects; middle school "career guides" and custodial positions.

The board rejected other cuts the administration had proposed. It decided not to cut four full-time elementary school librarian positions, nine special education counselors, seven high school graduation coaches, three staff positions for the gifted program and six full-time maintenance positions.

More than a hundred people testified in favor of programs that were originally expected to take hits, said a district spokeswoman. The board and superintendent also received hundreds of emails.

The budget assumes the district will get flat funding from the state, which pays about half of school costs. It assumes a 1 percent increase in local tax revenues.

But Superintendent Carol Comeau noted state revenue decisions have not been made.

"We are still near the beginning of a very long process that will not end until the Legislature and governor have completed their action in April or later," she said in a written statement. "We will continue to make our case for increased educational funding to the mayor, Anchorage Assembly members, state Legislature and the governor."

The state Senate on Friday passed a bill that would guarantee three years of increased funding for Alaska school districts. It would add $9.2 million for the Anchorage district next year, said Stiteler. "We are big fans of it."

A bill pending for school transportation would add another $2.2 million to the district's revenue, he said.

The Anchorage Assembly, which has the final say on overall school spending, is scheduled to hold a public hearing and consider the district's plan on March 27. Typically, if the Legislature adds money later in the year, the district comes back to the Assembly for approval to spend more.

Reach Rosemary Shinohara at rshinohara@adn.com or 257-4340.

Anchorage Daily News