With $23 million budget gap looming, ASD asks public for feedback

Michelle Theriault Boots

The Anchorage School District is facing a $23 million budget shortfall for next year, and the cuts aren't going to be pretty.

As the district begins to put together the 2014-2015 budget, it is asking the community to come forward at a series of public meetings this week to share what should be cut and what needs to be preserved.

"This is going to be a difficult discussion," Anchorage School Board member Eric Croft said at the board meeting Monday night.

The gap exists for the same reason a $25 million-sized hole did last year: A mix of flat funding from the state, declining money from the federal government and runaway health-care cost obligations that are growing at four to five times the rate of inflation.

The district closed the $25 million funding gap for the 2013-2014 school year by spending $7 million of its reserves and cutting $18 million through a combination of layoffs, attrition and cuts in supplies and services.

Cuts in areas like counseling, administration and special educations aides kept classroom teachers from being laid off.

This year, school board members want to avoid using more than a few million of reserves to tackle the gap, in order to leave enough for an emergency.

"We can't keep using reserves to fill that big a hole in the budget," Croft said.

Croft illustrated the problems of closing the gap with a hypothetical example:

If the district got rid of all athletic programs, saving about $7 million, and cut 120 teaching positions, for about $12 million, it would still need to find millions more in savings to balance the budget.

Cuts this year will directly impact the jobs of some classroom teachers, he said.

"I'm afraid that holding the classroom harmless simply can't be sustained."

Many scenarios for how to make up the gap are on the table, including increasing class sizes or cutting programs, said ASD spokeswoman Heidi Embley.

That's why the district wants people to show up and share their opinion at this week's community meetings, while they can influence the board before the budget is even drawn up, she said.

"The community needs to tell us what they value," said school board member Kameron Perez-Verdia.

The meetings will be held:

• Wednesday at Clark Middle School, 6 p.m.

• Thursday at Gruening Middle School, 6 p.m.

• Saturday at Hanshew Middle School, 1 p.m.

So far, only 32 people have sent RSVPs that they'll attend a community meeting, Embley said. (An RSVP is not necessary to attend.)

A budget crisis is nothing new for the district, nor is it likely to go away anytime soon.

In an op-ed in February, the then-superintendent and the then-school board president wrote that "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."

District backers have suggested that an increase in the state's per-student funding formula would help the district cut its red ink.

But with other demands for state money growing and state revenue in decline, schools will have trouble getting a sympathetic ear.

On Monday, a state House of Representatives task force on sustainable education met with the Finance Subcommittee on Education in Anchorage to discuss the way the state pays for public schools.

Rep. Lynn Gattis, R-Wasilla, one of the organizers of the meeting, said the legislators listened to presentations from the state Department of Education and other groups Monday.

Gattis talked in terms of doing more with less.

"One way of looking at it is when things start tightening up, it creates opportunity," she said. "You don't have that mother of invention called necessity when you've got lots and lots of money."