The cost of Anchorage's schools has risen sharply in the past 10 years. The Anchorage School District’s budgets have added millions of dollars every year since the 2001-2002 school year. The 2010-2011 school budget hit almost $800 million. Many of the reasons behind the rise are uncontrollable directly but could be reduced by proxy. The general fund seems to be the only fund that the district has direct control over. A more aggressive reduction approach is needed if ASD has any chance of quelling the unsustainable increases.
Are the personnel increases necessary?
According to ASD, it has added 795.96 positions in the last 10 years. That would be fine if the rate of students had increased accordingly in the same time frame. In fact, ASD had 50,029 students in the 2001-2002 school year. Fast-forward to 2010-2011 and Anchorage shows 49,243, a reduction of 786 students.
ASD has addressed the employee expansion issue. Part of these increases were necessary additions due to ASD adding new schools, special education personnel, and other positions required to properly run each new facility and the expanded district services.
ASD has added just over one employee for every student lost. Each of those employees is taking up a salary, retirement benefit, and a health-care plan. The retirement and health-care premiums are two of the categories that ASD has said that it has no control over in the general fund. But if there was not this expansion in employment, ASD would not be paying retirement or health-care premiums for the employees.
Looking through the ASD Budgeted Number of Employees 2000-2001, 2010-2011 comparison, it seems that many of the positions that ASD has added or previously had could be combined into one position, have their man-power reduced or positions restructured so that one employee could be utilized at more than one school in the district.
There are stand-outs that seem to be very similar jobs, such as the retirement specialist and the benefits specialist. Combining similar professional positions could reduce the expansion by as many as 35 positions.
Another possible reduction could be to remove the curriculum assistant principal from each high school and combine the student and staff services assistant principal positions into one position. Then restructure the curriculum position into a district position with four curriculum coordinators, assigning each two schools to administer.
The possibilities of the reduction of district positions is endless but has to be approached with caution as to not stretch resources too thin, harming students in the process.
Reduce the debt?
Debt has hit this country hard in the past few years. ASD is no stranger to debt. Since 2002 ASD has presented 20 bonds to the voters of Anchorage for approval. Not all have passed, but the sum of the ones that have totals more than $469 million. The state does traditionally take on 60 to 70 percent of this debt but is in no way obligated to do so.
The debt service fund of the ASD budget is a number that can only be controlled by not taking on more debt. The voters of Anchorage have control in this area of the budget. Once the bond has passed, it is the obligation of the Anchorage taxpayers through ASD to pay for the obligation. This year's projected debt service fund is $87,664,752.
With many states and the federal government reducing spending, a time may come when the debt of the city/district may not be subsidized by the state. If that were to happen, the debt obligation of the district would be 100 percent, and the budgets could rise even higher and faster.
Could more options reduce the budget costs?
The total Anchorage school budget for the 2010-2011 school year was $789,443,8929. This number includes costs that are uncontrollable by the district such as retirement funds, food service, debt service, and other costs like fuel.
For each student in ASD it costs $16,031.59 to send them to school for the 2010-2011 school year. It seems that with all the uncontrollable obligations it would be impossible to reduce the costs per child, but it is not.
Private school is an option. ASD could start a voucher program for children whose parents would be willing to give up services the public school system provides, like buses and reduced-cost lunches. This could save Anchorage millions in the long run. If enough people used the program, ASD could reduce the amount of food service costs, amount of teachers, wear and tear on equipment and facilities, energy costs, and much more by not having as many students.
The only thing it would cost Anchorage is the cost of the voucher. Many think that private school would have to be more than the cost of ASD enrollment, but it is actually a fraction of the cost. In fact the cost of sending a child to a private school per year is roughly half of what it costs ASD per year.
Holy Rosary Academy is a K-12 private school here in Anchorage. It has won national awards for academic excellence and is rated one of the 50 top Catholic high schools in the country. The cost of tuition is $6,200 for high school and $5,000 for elementary school, with a $750 discount for multiple children being enrolled. Anchorage could give a voucher to a family with two children in high school and one in elementary for $31.59 less than what it costs ASD to educate one child. Total savings would be more than $32,000, but even taking into account ASD’s uncontrollable costs -- roughly half of its budget -- ASD could still save over $16,000 for this family of three by paying for their tuition.
Holy Rosary Academy is not the only instance of a private school educating children for less money than a public school can. Grace Christian Academy publishes their tuition as being $7,750 plus a $350 registration fee.
Could performance soften the blow of the cost increases?
Many parents would say that as long as students are getting a quality education, then costs would not matter as much. The problem with ASD is that over half the children are not getting a quality education. The money seems to just be padding wallets and not enlightening minds.
In the 2010-2011 school year, 59 out of the 96 tested schools in ASD failed to meet the minimum requirements set forth by the No Child Left Behind Act. This should be unacceptable. When a grievous mistake happens in the military or a corporation, people are removed for that performance. Usually it is the CEO or a general. Leadership is stripped away when none is provided. This seems to not be the case in ASD.
Another staggering statistic is that ASD had a graduation rate of 72.4 percent for the 2010-2011 year. This is up 10 percent from five years ago and .4 percent above the national average in 2008, but saying this is a great job is like telling a business they are great because they finished 10 percent less in the red this year than they had five years ago. You’re still letting people down.
Anchorage could also explore the option of transitioning more of its existing schools into charter schools with a tested and proven style of instruction. Over 60 percent of all Eagle Academy Charter School K-6 students are considered advanced in Reading, Writing, Math, and Science.
Orion Elementary School K-6 is achieving great success in ASD. As traditional schools go, it is above average in every category -- Math and Science being far above average -- but the amount of students achieving an advanced proficiency is far lower than Eagle Academy Charter with 36.36 percent in Reading, 37.02 percent in Writing, 49.04 percent in Math and 30.36 percent in Science.
Not every charter school has the same success, but to have such an across-the-board accomplishment as Eagle Academy has had is an achievement that few schools have obtained. Eagle Academy has hit on a way to teach its students that should be looked at, studied, and emulated.
The only way to get the school budgets back under control is to begin to be fiscally and educationally responsible. There are many options to reduce spending but they have to be implemented. Intellectual conversations and even this commentary will not ever change a thing unless ASD listens. A shake-up is needed in the district. The old way of doing business is not working. Change is the only way that ASD can once again put its priorities back with the students instead of the obligations it has leashed itself to. ASD cannot keep sitting on its thumbs and hope it gets better. It is time for accountability in the ASD.
Jason Conley is an active duty member of the Armed Forces. In 2010, he received the President's Gold Award for Volunteerism for work with the Boy Scouts of America Eklutna District and Elmendorf Cub Scout Pack 109. Conley has two children enrolled in Anchorage schools.
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