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Rural Alaska schools scrape bottom-barrel dollars to fund classrooms

Jerzy Shedlock
Alaska’s urban schools lost more than 600 teachers and staff members over the past three years. And Alaska’s rural school districts face similar challenges due to flat classroom funds. Creative Commons photo courtesy Shutterhacks (Flickr)

Alaska’s urban schools lost more than 600 teachers and staff members over the past three years. That’s according to a recent legislative report focusing on some of the state’s largest school districts. All Alaska districts eliminated positions. And even though the state’s secluded rural school districts were not included in the report, many of them face similar challenges due to flat classroom funds.

Rep. Les Gara, D-Anchorage, a vocal advocate for increasing education funding in Alaska, requested the report. It focuses on several of the largest school districts in the state, including Anchorage, the Fairbanks borough, Juneau, the Kodiak Island borough, and the Matanuska-Susitna borough.

All of the districts reported staffing cuts between fiscal years 2011 and 2014, ranging from a decrease of 2.7 percent in the Interior schools managed through Fairbanks to 14 percent on Kodiak Island, according to the report.

Those decreases include certified staff such as administrators and teachers, as well as so-called “classified” positions such as janitors and supervisors.

Student enrollment over the three years fluctuated, but no district had a decrease greater than 1 percent.

Gara and other House Democrats hope to use the report to increase the state’s Base Student Allocation, or BSA, the number of dollars school districts receive per student. The current BSA is $5,680, where it has remained the last three years. Every year Gara has been a member of the Alaska Legislature, he and other legislators have worked on passing bills to keep school funding on par with inflation. Those bills have failed, he said.

“But the proof is in the pudding,” Gara said, referring to the report. “We’re losing staff statewide and harming educational opportunity ... I think if the public is informed of what’s happening then there will be pressure on the Legislature to start reversing this three-year course of staffing cuts.”

Dipping into reserves in Nome

Missing from the report are the small rural school districts far from eyes of Alaska urbanites. Fewer students means fewer dollars funneling into off-the-road schools, too. Among them: schools in Dillingham; towns hugging the Lower Kuskokwim River; Nome, a northwestern hub town on the shore of the Bering Sea -- all school districts that rely heavily on the dollars-per-student formula.

“A boost in the BSA is always going to help us,” said Nome School District Superintendent Steve Gast, “because even though the funding has remained flat, our enrollment has varied a little bit” over that three-year period.

Nome has retained its teachers, however. The district lost staff five years ago when there was a major dip in enrollment, Gast said. Teachers have stayed put as of late because the local school board opted to use reserve funds.

If Nome had left the reserve money alone, it would be cutting programs and staff, he said. The district offers a strong preschool program, largely funded through a grant, which received a 28-percent cut this year. That meant a loss of $80,000 for the district.

The money was taken from the reserves and the teacher retained. “In a year where we might not have those reserves, we would have cut that teacher,” Gast said.

Some $88,000 was used to upgrade the district’s Internet capabilities, particularly its bandwidth. Gast noted that when Alaska politicians argue rural districts should use distance learning to offer a wider selection of courses, that may be something easier said than done without adequate bandwidth. “It’s like every issue has another issue that ties onto it,” Gast said.

The district also depends upon outside contributions for help. For instance, Sitnasuak Native Corporation donated $100,000 to help subsidize the district’s JROTC program. 

Dipping into reserves is not an option next year, he added.

Booming population means more dollars

North of Anchorage, Alaska’s largest city, the Mat-Su Borough is booming, with an expading population. Mat-Su is home to 13 percent of the state’s population, but in recent years it has absorbed three-quarters of people moving north, to Alaska from Outside.

Enrollment in the Mat-Su’s school district increased 2 percent and positions dropped 6 percent (a loss of 114 staffers) from fiscal year 2011 to 2014. That growth continues. Based on preliminary estimates, there are 250 more student in Mat-Su schools this school year. “We are continuing to grow, and that will bring more dollars to Mat-Su,” Esary said. “So the number-one target for any additional money ... is direct instruction.”

Anchorage, Fairbanks and Juneau making cuts

The most visible district in the state is also the largest. Anchorage School District oversees more than 49,000 students and has seen enrollment increase about 0.5 percent over three years.

However, hundreds of staff positions have been cut in the wake of budget shortfalls and a push to reduce spending by a new superintendent from the Lower 48, who stayed in the position less than a year. Longtime Anchorage teacher and administrator Ed Graff then took over, saying he agrees with his predecessor’s decisions. Spending cuts are unavoidable as federal and state funds decline, officials say.

Schools in the Fairbanks North Star Borough School District eliminated 47 positions; enrollment increased a mere 0.3 percent. Despite crushingly expensive heating fuel, extreme winter temperatures and a copious amount of mosquitos, the borough’s population continues to grow. It reached a milestone in 2012 when the area’s population surpassed 100,000.

Juneau eliminated 98 positions and lost 21 students. 

Contact Jerzy Shedlock at jerzy(at)alaskadispatch.com. Follow him on Twitter @jerzyms