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Anchorage Assembly boosts school district funding by $8.6 million, hiking property taxes

Sean Doogan

After hearing emotional pleas from dozens of Anchorage residents at a special Monday night meeting at Loussac Library in Midtown, the Anchorage Assembly added more than $8 million to what it will contribute to the Anchorage School District for the 2014-15 school year.

The increase comes in two forms: $5.8 million in added money from the city's property taxpayers and $2.75 million from a reversal of charges the city usually assigns to the district.

Until Monday's Assembly increase, and a $150 per student increase from the Alaska Legislature last week, the Anchorage School District faced a budget gap of $23 million and expected to lay off as many as 100 teachers. That gap is now considerably smaller, if not completely closed.

Monday's action was triggered, in part, by the action of the Alaska Legislature last week to increase the Base Student Allocation -- the per-pupil amount the state pays to its school districts -- by $150 per student. Since municipalities' contributions to their school districts are capped in an effort to level the playing field for rural districts that don't have access to local taxes, the Legislature's increase meant the Anchorage Assembly could add up to $5.8 million to what planned on giving to the Anchorage School District. It did just that, deciding to take the entire amount from property taxpayers. Supporters of the plan said by using property taxes, it would guarantee the same level of funding would be available next year.

"I want to make the school district whole and make its funding sustainable," Assembly member Elvi Gray-Jackson said.

The move to use property taxes to pay for the increase was contentious. It passed by a slim 6-5 majority and could face a veto from Anchorage Mayor Dan Sullivan. Assembly member Amy Demboski -- who voted against using only property taxes to pay for the increase -- was upset that other funding sources weren't considered.

"I feel like we are in an episode of, 'The Twilight Zone' because we have a $13 million (municipal) budget surplus, and we are talking about increasing taxes," Demboski said during debate over the increase.

Mayor Sullivan declined to say whether he is considering a veto of the increase, but he hinted that he had issues with the amount. Sullivan said he has seen little evidence to connect increased funding with better student performance.

"There was very little discussion about student performance," Sullivan said. "What are they going to do with the money to improve student performance?"

Mayor Sullivan has seven days to issue a veto, and it would take eight votes to override. Assembly Vice Chairperson Dick Traini said he is not worried about garnering more support for the increase or using tax dollars to pay for it.

"We will pick up the votes," Traini said. "There will be a lot of pressure on the Assembly members from groups like Great Alaska Schools."

The Anchorage Assembly ended up giving the district more money by eliminating several fees it charges the school district. The additional $2.75 million included eliminating a $250,000 annual charge to the district for a portion of the cost the city incurs when sending out property tax notices. It also included money the city charged the district for the use of police officers in schools. There are currently 18 Anchorage police officers, called student resource officers, stationed in local schools at a cost of $3 million per year. The Assembly had already funded about one-fourth of that cost ($750,000) for the 2014-2015 school year. On Monday, during budget revisions, the Assembly voted to fully fund the program for the next school year.

Just how many teacher positions, programs or other staff jobs will be saved by the increased funding from the Alaska Legislature and the Anchorage Assembly is unclear. How the added property tax money will be used is left up to the school district, which begins meeting this week on the issue. But after a sometimes difficult back-and-forth over the budget that saw pointed questions from Assembly members directed at School Board staff in at least two work sessions, school officials seemed less anxious about the city support.

"We appreciate the Assembly's support of education," Anchorage School District Superintendent Ed Graff said.

Contact Sean Doogan at sean@alaskadispatch.com.

 


By SEAN DOOGAN
Alaska Dispatch