Juneau, Fairbanks also plan teacher layoffs

Michelle Theriault Boots

Anchorage isn't the only school district in the state facing big teacher layoffs.

Three of the largest school systems in the state -- Anchorage, Fairbanks and Juneau -- all announced Tuesday they expect to eliminate classroom teaching jobs next year.

All cited a combination of flat funding from state, local and federal sources combined with runaway employee health care costs and rising energy prices.

And all echoed Anchorage Superintendent Ed Graff, who on Tuesday said the cuts could send the district into "unprecedented" territory.

The Fairbanks North Star Borough, which educates about 14,000 students, is looking at losing 50 to 70 teachers if it doesn't get more funding from the borough or state, said Superintendent Pete Lewis.

Class sizes would go up and entire programs could be eliminated, he said.

"We are dangerously approaching that point," Lewis said. "We'll be at all-time class size highs. We're faced with some very difficult decisions."

Fairbanks schools receive about 70 percent of their funding from the state and about 22 percent from local property taxes.

The Fairbanks district could raise more money locally if the borough taxed to the maximum allowed under its tax cap. Lewis said he feels the borough values education but he isn't sure that will lead to increased funding.

"I mean, this is Alaska. People would prefer not to pay taxes if they don't have to," he said. "And so there is always going to be that tension."

The Juneau School District, with about 5,000 students, told the Juneau Empire it faces a $4.5 million shortfall and would eliminate 30 classroom positions to help offset it. Half of those would be special education teachers, Superintendent Glenn Gelbrich said.

Juneau has cut teaching staff by about 18 percent to cut $11.7 million from its budget since 2011.

The Mat-Su Borough School District, the second largest in the state with about 17,000 students, is early in the process of developing its budget, said Assistant Superintendent Gene Stone.

Financially, it is in healthier shape than some of the other big districts.

But it may still end up with a modest deficit for next year, which would mean unfilled positions and a shrinking work force, Stone said.

A big factor buoying the district's finances: continued growth in enrollment. Most other districts in the state have a shrinking number of students, Stone said, while Mat-Su's continues to grow.

Also, the district already went through its own "bloodletting," as Stone describes it, in the winter of 2011, when it confronted a $9 million deficit.

The district managed not to lay off anyone by offering early retirement incentives but it moved high schools to a seven-period-a-day schedule to offset a smaller work force of teachers. Anchorage plans to implement a seven-period schedule next year.

To stay ahead of costs, the district has become "very efficient," Stone said. The ratio of administrators to students is the lowest of any of the five biggest Alaska districts by enrollment. Class sizes are also among the highest in the state.

"It doesn't mean we don't sit and wrack our brains on how we can keep sustaining this," Stone said.

Reach Michelle Theriault Boots at mtheriault@adn.com or 257-4344.