Don't cut staff and programs, school board hears

Michelle Theriault Boots

Dozens of students, teachers and parents spoke against proposed cuts to counseling staff, teachers and JROTC programs at Monday night's meeting of the Anchorage School Board.

It wasn't the first time School Board members have heard public discontent with a proposed Anchorage School District budget for the 2014-2015 school year that includes $23 million in cuts, including teacher layoffs.

But more people were saying it: Thirty-one signed up to testify at Monday's meeting, the most during this budget cycle, said School Board president Tam Agosti-Gisler. The crowd was standing room only.

Some of the people testifying made broad pleas for more public school funding. Others advocated for specific programs facing cuts.

School counselors from elementary, middle and high schools said they'd been forced to publicly justify their jobs in the face of threatened cuts for the past few budget cycles, all while dealing with escalating needs in schools.

"We intervene in life-and-death situations," said counselor Carol Benroth. "We are the ones with our hands on the wheel."

Many in the audience wore paper hearts pinned to their lapels with the words "I Support Counselors" on them.

Parents and cadets asked the district to hold off on cutting JROTC programs for a year, to give participants and alumni time to fundraise.

Andy Hollemon, the head of the union that represents ASD teachers, asked the board to vote down a proposed move to a seven-period day, saying it would be a "huge structural change to high schools without the buy-in of staff. "

The board did not make a final vote on the proposed budget at Monday's meeting.

The Anchorage School Board can -- and has in the past -- made changes to the budget the School District has proposed. Last year they brought back some counselor jobs, said ASD spokeswoman Heidi Embley.

Positions restored must be balanced with other cuts, said board member Natasha von Imhof.

The wild card is still what the Legislature will do with the base student allocation. The district gets the majority of its funding from the base student allocation formula.

Board member Pat Higgins said Gov. Sean Parnell's education plan, which includes increasing the formula in exchange for support of a bill that could pave the way for vouchers, doesn't give the district what it would need to avert major cuts.

"We are stuck with a proposal from the governor that gives us very little, and it's even much less than it looks like," Higgins said.

A final vote will happen at the board's next meeting, on Thursday, Feb. 20.

Reach Michelle Theriault Boots at or 257-4344.