Julia O'Malley: Forget the tennis courts. How about taking care of schools?

Julia O'Malley

It's been hard not to do budget math while reading the paper this week. The Anchorage School District is short $23 million in operating funds and is looking at cutting teachers. Meanwhile, the world of professional tennis, including Billie Jean King and the Williams sisters, has been lobbying Anchorage lawmakers to build a tennis facility that will cost at least $8.5 million and that a lot of people don't want.

I don't think I'm alone when I asked out loud while reading these facts at the breakfast table: Why are we building a tennis facility we probably don't need while we can't fund schools? What the heck?

I drove out to Gruening Middle School on Thursday night for one of the public meetings the school district is holding to help involve the public in the budget-cutting process. A lot of things I learned there surprised me. First, even though 48,000 children attend Anchorage schools (that's more than the population of the city of Fairbanks), the parking lot outside the middle school had plenty of spots. Inside, I found fewer than 100 people had come to talk about the problems facing the district. There will easily be more people attending a single showing of the "Jackass" movie this weekend.

Next, I learned how big these problems are with our schools: over the next two years, if there isn't more revenue for the district to help it keep pace with inflation, then it will have to cut $49 million, or 580 positions, including teachers. Wow.

The district has roughly $563.5 million in revenue to cover the cost of operating schools next year. That's about what it had this year, but the cost to offer the same level of services has increased $23 million, according to Mark Foster, ASD's CFO. Enrollment has been flat for several years, but recently decreased one percent.

The budget shortfall isn't because of out-of-hand teacher contracts. In fact, adjusting for inflation, teachers make only slightly more now than they did in the early 1980s. It comes from three things: falling federal funding (In part due to sequestration. Ask your congressional delegation about that.), big increases in health care costs for district employees (in particular the costs for seeing medical specialists here), and flat funding from the state.

Wait, what? Our state could help fix this school budget problem? Yes. It could simply make the amount it allocates to schools change to keep up with inflation. But the last four years it has not done that. Alaska is healthy, budget-wise. Last session, the state passed a $2.2 billion capital budget that contained a number of non-essential projects like the embattled tennis courts. Funding for schools is an operating expense, not a capital expense, but still. Not giving schools what they need to keep pace with increasing costs isn't because we can't. It's because the legislature doesn't want to.

"There is frustration that the achievement levels are not shifting and we need to think about doing business differently," Tam Agosti-Gisler, the school board president, told me Friday.

Anchorage School Board members go each year to lobby for funding, she said, and in recent years they have not gotten the support they asked for mainly to cover health care costs that keep going up. Legislators say they want schools to have a better performance, she said, but it's unclear exactly what that means. Some say it's higher test scores. Some say it's higher graduation rates.

"We're not sure what the standard is," she said. That's part of what makes the legislatures' position difficult to change, she said.

What does achievement look like in Anchorage? Last year, 76 percent of students made it to graduation in four years. Seventy-nine percent did it in five. Those are the best percentages the district has ever seen. The drop-out rate was 3.7 percent, among the lowest ever.

When I asked people involved with the schools about the biggest barrier to better student achievement, they all said the same thing: economics. That brings be to another surprising thing I learned Thursday: just about half the students in the district are low income. What does that means in real terms? In a family of four with two working parents, each parent is bringing home $800 or less every two weeks.

Another challenge to student success is whether a student speaks English well. More than one in ten students in the district doesn't come from an English-speaking home. The district must try to get those students to meet the same academic standards as everyone else. Students in Anchorage schools speak 93 languages, from Spanish to Yup'ik to African tribal dialects.

Certainly, the district can continue to improve academic performance, Agosti-Gisler told me, but some of that improvement means providing extra help for the many students facing challenges. Cutting teachers doesn't do that.

You could argue that the legislature's approach has worked. Graduation rates have been increasing, while drop-out rates have gone down, even as the district cut some staff, including teacher's aides and counselors. But forcing deeper cuts in the next few years, including lay-offs for teachers, seems like a strange way to push for student success. It's a little like starving a kid to get him to study harder.

Another option would be for all of us in Anchorage to pay a little more toward our schools. A guy stood up at the meeting and identified himself as being in the Air Force. He said he did some math and figured out we could close the budget gap if we raised property taxes for the average homeowner about $20 a month. Like about the cost of one fancy coffee drink a week, he said.

"I'm a Republican and I don't like higher taxes any more than anybody else does," he said.

But, he added, there is always the option of finding more revenue, he said.

"This is something the community could do," he said.

Here's something else you could do: Go to the last school district public meeting. It's Saturday t 1 p.m. at Hanshew Middle School. Or maybe you can get a message in to the Willams sisters. Say you've got a cause more worthy than new tennis courts, and ask if they're willing to make a few calls.

Julia O'Malley writes a regular column. Reach her by phone at 257-4591, email her at jomalley@adn.com, follow her on Facebook or Twitter: @adn_jomalley.

If you want to go:

Anchorage School District budget conversation

Today, Saturday, Nov. 9 at 1 p.m.

Hanshew Middle School, 10121 Lake Otis Parkway

More information: http://www.asdk12.org/budget/community


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