Anchorage School District officials presented a proposed budget that includes eliminating 159 classroom teaching positions -- cuts the district has described as "unprecedented" -- to a half-empty room at Thursday's meeting of the Anchorage School Board.
The School Board meeting marked the first time the public has been able to formally respond to the proposed reductions, aimed at closing a $23 million budget gap. It kicked off a process that will include two more readings of the budget before the final board vote, scheduled for Feb. 20.
Superintendent Ed Graff, finance head Mark Foster and chief academic officer Mike Graham twice outlined the shape of cuts at Thursday's meeting, held at district headquarters.
Assuming the Legislature doesn't increase the base student allocation, the $566 million proposed general operating budget for the 2014-2015 school year calls for the elimination of 219 "full-time equivalent" positions, Foster said.
School officials have emphasized that complex variables -- such as unexpected retirements -- might change the number of employees actually being laid off. Teachers should know their employment status by May 14, School District spokeswoman Heather Roach said.
Though some teaching jobs are going away in next year's budget, support and administration jobs have been eliminated at an even higher rate, Foster said.
"We're mindful that we have to increase the percentage of overall staff that's classroom instruction," he told the board.
The district also plans to save money through reductions to counseling staff, sports travel and eliminating high school swimming classes. Elementary school class sizes will increase and secondary schools will move to a seven-period schedule, meaning teachers will instruct an extra class each day.
Graham told the board members that the decision to move to a seven-period day was the best way to keep course offerings consistent and acknowledged that it would put extra duties on teachers.
"Teacher workloads will increase while planning time will decrease," he said.
The district said Tuesday that the budget gap is due to a combination of rising costs driven by inflation and flat or declining funding from local, state and federal sources, including the state's base student allocation funding formula.
The meeting came a day after Gov. Sean Parnell said in his State of the State speech that he'd urge lawmakers to increase the BSA -- in exchange for what he called "real education reform."
Graff said he didn't yet know enough about Parnell's plan to comment directly.
"But I'm excited to hear there's an interest in increasing the (base student allocation)," he told the board.
While rows of chairs sat empty in the boardroom Thursday night, a string of students, teachers, parents and community members testified.
Tamare Bill, a Bartlett High School senior, had written in her blue iPhone a speech she planned to give.
Bill said she'd never been to a School Board meeting before but was worried about the implications of a seven-period day.
The gist of her message: More classes would mean less time for her teachers to instruct and more homework, burdening already overworked teachers and student alike.
"Our teachers would be required to teach the same curriculum required with a lot less time," she said.
Others who testified included Bartlett counselor Tina Bernoski, who said the cuts to counseling staff were approaching a level dangerous for students.
"This district is like no other," she said. "I've felt overwhelmed and helpless due to the magnitude of need here in Anchorage."
Dan Loring, a community member who regularly speaks at School Board meetings, told attendees that the board should have seen the budget crunch coming.
"Do we increase salaries and benefits when we know we don't have that money, and we know we're going to be in this position tonight?" he said. "We knew the School Board knew it was spending money it didn't have, that these conversations were going to happen and kids were going to get hurt."
The next meeting of the Anchorage School Board is at 6:30 p.m. on Feb. 3.
Reach Michelle Theriault Boots at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4344.
By MICHELE THERIAULT BOOTS