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Despite spring layoffs at ASD, most teachers back on the job

Michelle Theriault Boots
Second grader Everett Thompson poses for a picture for grandma Rosa Waliszewski as students return to school on Wednesday morning, August 20, 2014, at Creekside Park Elementary School. "This sign has always been our first day photo," said Waliszewski. Most Anchorage School District students returned to classrooms Wednesday, and kindergartners and first graders will follow next week.
Erik Hill / Alaska Dispatch News
First-year principal Tim Andrew provides directions as students return to school on Wednesday morning, August 20, 2014, at Creekside Park Elementary School. Andrew had previously spent time at the school while training to be a principal. "The first day of school is always exciting and full of promise looking ahead to the new year," he said. "We here at Creekside are very grateful for the support of our families who bring their kids, every day, on time, ready to learn. When schools and families work together like this, anything is possible!"
Erik Hill / Alaska Dispatch News
Third grader Brandi Nicholson gets a goodbye kiss from mom Cami Nicholson as students return to school on Wednesday morning, August 20, 2014, at Creekside Park Elementary School. Most Anchorage School District students returned to classrooms Wednesday, and kindergartners and first graders will follow next week.
Erik Hill / Alaska Dispatch News
Second graders pledge allegiance to the flag in Tina McClellan's room as students return to school on Wednesday morning, August 20, 2014, at Creekside Park Elementary School.
Erik Hill / Alaska Dispatch News
Teacher Tina McClellan reminds her second graders not to shout out answers as she reviews the first assignment of the year on Wednesday morning, August 20, 2014, at Creekside Park Elementary School. Most Anchorage School District students returned to classrooms Wednesday, and kindergartners and first graders will follow next week.
Erik Hill / Alaska Dispatch News

After a wrenching spring budget process that promised big cuts, the Anchorage School District started the school year Wednesday having rehired all but three of the dozens of teachers who received layoff notices in May.

Most of the laid-off teachers were reshuffled into positions vacated by resignations or retirements, said Todd Hess, the district's human resources director.   

The few teachers who remain on the “layoff list” have specialized certifications that made it impossible for them to transfer into open positions, he said. 

But as of Wednesday, the district was down 75 positions overall from the first day of school last year, said ASD spokeswoman Heidi Embley.

The majority of those jobs were in support departments like maintenance, districtwide administration and IT, said district finance head Mark Foster.

While the number of positions in the district is down, ASD did some hiring, too, using funding from the Legislature to fill 37 new positions in areas the district considers high-priority, including pre-kindergarten and early literacy programs. 

It needs to hire more, said Hess. As of Wednesday, 70 positions, mostly in chronically hard-to-staff areas such as special education, still need to be filled, he said.

“Every year there are unfilled teacher spots” on the first day of school, he said. “This year we have a few more than we have in the past.”

Thanks to complex reshuffling of staff, students and parents should notice little difference in the overall “level of services” found in schools this year, though some teachers and counselors will likely be at different schools than previous years, Embley said. 

There should be no noticeable change in class sizes, though some classes could be bigger in the first few weeks if far more students show up on the first day than expected, Embley said.

For the most part, the district has been able to hold off predicted painful, widespread cuts. But it has cut 200 teaching positions over the past few years, Hess said. That doesn’t include the support positions cut.

Similar budget gaps are projected for each of the next several years. The district wants a change to the base student allocation to guarantee recurring funding, Embley said.  

If nothing changes, a long-deferred reckoning that will be felt in classrooms is inevitable, she said.  

“We have a 75-position reduction on top of hundreds of positions lost last year and we’re looking at similar reductions in the future,” Embley said. “Is it painful? Yes. Are we trying to make the least amount of impact to students? Absolutely.”