Compass: Anchorage schools aim high despite cuts

Reduce costs and streamline services. That's our charge over the next five years to meet a flat revenue outlook. We'll do that by realigning and focusing on high-quality classroom instruction to improve student performance.

• How is the district balancing costs and revenues?

Over the past 20 years, staff salaries have basically tracked inflation. Benefits, especially health and pensions, have grown almost twice as fast as inflation. The reality of our fiscal situation is that with a flat revenue outlook from state and local sources, and likely reductions from federal sources, we have to cut $25 million a year -- or roughly 250 positions -- in each of the next five years just to stay even with salary and benefit growth.

This year, we're cutting hundreds of positions, reducing supplies and materials, using some savings, and reinvesting in high-value initiatives to balance the budget.

We started reducing positions in July by reviewing every newly vacant non-classroom-teacher position to determine if that position aligned with the district's strategic plan -- and even if it aligned, whether it could be streamlined. By managing attrition, our administrative building staff levels have decreased 10 percent. We believe we can eliminate about three-quarters of the total recommended position reductions this next year without issuing layoff notices. This is important to us because we know that we have quality employees who are working hard. These position reductions reflect the fiscal reality we face which requires realignment on high-quality instruction while reducing and streamlining support functions.

• How is the district realigning on high-quality classroom instruction?

Last year, we undertook a benchmarking study of district staffing levels compared to our peer groups nationwide. That study indicated the district's support functions had grown larger than our peers' while direct classroom instruction -- our teachers -- had declined as a proportion of our effort compared to other districts. The study suggested we reduce 500 positions from our support functions and shift resources directly back to classroom instruction.

After reviewing our history, our peer group benchmarking analysis, and consulting with principals and teachers, we've identified reductions of roughly 215 support positions and the addition of two dozen classroom teachers.

• How is the district going to improve student performance?

In our efforts to improve student performance, we apply the saying, "you manage what you measure."

We start in the classroom. We're providing teachers with tools and training so they can meet individual student needs and monitor their growth through frequent assessments and fine tuning of instruction. This ensures students are making progress toward high standards.

We continue in the classroom by setting higher standards. We're aligning our curriculum with the Common Core State Standards -- new standards adopted by ASD and 46 states, which are designed to make us competitive nationwide, and ultimately with other countries, in our quest to be among the best.

We monitor those results by reviewing our student performance on the annual Standards Based Assessments. To provide a more open and transparent view of spending and performance, we're now including the five-year trend results in SBA test scores in a supplemental budget report. This will help transform the budget from a detailed list of spending into a review of results based on our level of investment per student.

We continue by looking at how many of our students graduate.

All of these initiatives are part of the foundation of our efforts, which support our strategic plan, called Destination 2020. This plan set the goals of 90 percent proficiency in reading, writing and math, 90 percent graduation rate, every student attending school at least 90 percent of the time, 90 percent of parents recommend their child's school and all staff and students feel safe in school by the year 2020.

High standards, high-quality instruction, high achievement and high graduation rates under tough fiscal constraints. That's our challenge and our goal.


Jeannie Mackie is president of the Anchorage School Board. Jim Browder is superintendent of the Anchorage School District.