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School District proposes reinstating 86 classroom positions

Tegan Hanlon

Anchorage schools will have 57 fewer classroom teachers if the Anchorage School District moves forward with budget adjustments announced Friday by Superintendent Ed Graff.

In his announcement, Graff proposed that the district reinstate 86 of the 143 classroom teaching positions that were eliminated earlier this month to cover a multimillion-dollar funding gap. The gap has shrunk since the Anchorage Assembly approved the district's budget in April. Attrition absorbed a lot of the planned cuts. Additional money from the state and municipality also lessened the depth and breath of reductions, Graff said.

Still, 39 middle and high school teachers were laid off last week. But the district may revoke those pink slips if the teachers qualify for the restored positions, said Heidi Embley, district spokeswoman.

"That's 86 jobs that need to be filled," she said.

The Anchorage School Board will make the final decision Monday on which jobs to bring back after hearing the superintendent's proposal and taking public comment.

Graff's recommendations focus on restoring classroom teachers: 44 in elementary, 30 in middle school and 12 in high school. The proposal would add 16 classroom teachers in kindergarten, first and second grade to stabilize class size for those just entering the school system.

"We know that our students are making progress and we want to continue that progress," Graff said. "In order to do that, we need to continue to focus on providing the right instruction at the right time for all of our students, and much of that takes place in the classroom."

Middle school class sizes would increase slightly, though the district did not have specific numbers. The effects on high school classes would be "mixed," Embley said.

She also expects the district to restore a couple of non-teaching positions. The district originally planned to cut more than 50 support staff jobs.

The budget still calls for the elimination of high school swimming classes. The fate of other electives remains uncertain and largely up to the schools' principals once they know how many full-time positions will be reinstated, Embley said.

"It's not clear until schedules are made whether some schools will completely drop certain electives," she said. "It's based on interest, so they'll each build their schedules accordingly."

As the budget evolves for next school year, Graff noted that the tug-of-war between the district and the state over funding hasn't stopped. State and federal funding still does not match the rate of inflation.

Graff projected that the district will have to cut a combined 360 positions in the next two budget years. He proposed holding about $4 million of new education money in reserve to mitigate future funding losses.

"We are very appreciative of the funding we received from the state and local governments," he said. "Unfortunately, we don't have enough to sustain us for the next three years."

During the most recent legislative session, the School Board pleaded for an increase to the base student allocation, a per-student payment that pays 57 percent of the district's operating budget. A parent-led coalition, Great Alaska Schools Anchorage, formed this year to join the board's call, rallying in Anchorage and Juneau. The Republican-led Legislature did not meet either of their demands to raise the BSA.

The state Legislature offered about a third of the money the district would need to continue at its current level of staffing after months of back-and-forth over an education bill that sent the legislative session into overtime. Ultimately, a compromise came out of the House-Senate free conference committee that raised the BSA by $150 in 2015 and $50 in each of the following years. The Anchorage School District said it needed about $400 in 2015 and $125 in each of the next years to bring back staff who were laid off in recent years and prevent future cuts.

In an April vote, the Anchorage Assembly added more than $8 million to the district's budget.

Rebecca Bernard, co-founder of Great Alaska Schools, praised Graff for focusing on restoring classroom teachers and keeping the student-to-teacher ratio balanced. She said it was unfortunate that the Legislature could not provide the district with multi-year stable funding.

"We really appreciate the hard work of the district trying to figure out the best way to spend the additional funding and rally trying to get as much as possible into the classroom," she said. "At the same time, it's too bad that the district had to make this decision."

Reach Tegan Hanlon at thanlon@adn.com.


By TEGAN HANLON
thanlon@adn.com