In the past three years, Alaska's largest school districts have lost about 600 teachers and other staff members, from teacher aides to custodians to bus drivers, a new legislative report says.
In Anchorage, the number of teachers and counselors has dropped by 95 since the 2010-11 school year, according to the Legislative Research Services report. Most of the Anchorage teacher positions were central office "teacher experts," specialized program positions and counselors -- not classroom teachers, the report released Wednesday said.
The research was requested by Rep. Les Gara, D-Anchorage. House Democrats already are using the information to push for a boost in the per-student dollars distributed from the state to local school districts. It's been an issue they've pressed for years, so far without legislative success.
"Alaska is paring back the people who are supposed to teach our kids and get them ready for the work force," Gara said. "Education is going the wrong way in the state and at some point the damage is going to be irreparable."
The per-student funding has remained the same since the 2010-11 school year, according to the state Department of Education and Early Development. The current base amount is $5,680 per student. That's 5 percent, higher per student than it was seven years ago.
During the study period, the Anchorage School District lost 285 full-time positions or their equivalent, including 97 teacher aides, 39 custodians and 24 clerks, the report said. Only the number of principals increased, by 2.5, the report said. While the number of employees shrunk by 5 percent, enrollment grew slightly. It's up less than 1 percent to a projected 48,885 this school year.
But the real hit may be even bigger. Just in the past year, Anchorage is down some 500 positions, said Mark Foster, the district's chief financial officer. That's more than the number in the legislative report, which relied on data provided by Foster, because it counts every part-time person separately and doesn't roll them into full-time equivalents, he said.
The district has tried to keep those cuts out of the classroom, Foster said. But some high school classes now have more than 30 students, he said, above the target of under 30.
Other districts examined were the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, down by almost 53 classroom teachers; the Fairbanks North Star Borough, down by almost 36 teachers and similar positions; Juneau, down by 28 teachers; and the Kodiak Island Borough, down by 36 teachers. Gara said he asked that Kodiak be included in the study because officials there have approached him with concerns.
In all, nearly 250 teachers and similar positions were cut in the five districts over the past three years, according to data in the report.
Efforts to reach Gov. Sean Parnell and key House Republicans were unsuccessful Tuesday. In the past, Parnell has supported increased education funding for specific purposes, such as to address soaring energy costs. One of his pet projects is a state-funded scholarship program for high achieving Alaska graduates.
But he has fought increases in the per-student formula. In 2012, when the state Senate -- then ruled by a bipartisan coalition -- passed a bill to boost the formula, Parnell called it the "ultimate giveaway." Educators had come out strongly for the increase. The Senate proposal died in the House Finance Committee.
Education Commissioner Mike Hanley, a former longtime Anchorage teacher and principal, declined to comment on the legislative report.
"We don't monitor how districts choose to spend their revenues," said Eric Fry, education department spokesman.
Asked Hanley's position on an increase in the per-student money provided by the state, Fry responded in an email: "The commissioner of education is part of the governor's Cabinet, and the governor presents the administration's budget, taking into account expectations of revenues and the various demands on state spending."
State finances likely will be tight next year. A major rollback this year of oil taxes that pay for most state general fund spending is going to cost hundreds of millions a year unless there's new oil production to make up for it.
In Anchorage, escalating health-care expenses are the main factor driving up costs for the district, Foster, the financial officer, said.
"Salaries have been essentially flat for 30 years. They've been pretty close to inflation," he said.
The district hasn't taken a position on whether it wants to push for a bump in the per-student funding next year in Juneau, he said.
In the Mat-Su Borough, where enrollment went up 2 percent and staff positions dropped 6 percent during the study period, the school district wanted a trimmer payroll, said Catherine Esary, district spokeswoman. The district used leftover federal stimulus dollars in the 2011-12 budget year to offer retirement incentives, which more than 100 employees took advantage of, Esary said.
The district has sought new state funding for specific projects, she said. One example is a partnership with the University of Alaska Anchorage called Alaska Middle College in which high school students can graduate with two years of college credit, she said. Another is the creation of an Air Force Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps at Wasilla High School, Esary said.
But other districts indicated the loss of teachers and staff has been hard.
One district told the legislative researcher that cuts in the administrative office challenged its ability to come up with firm numbers.
Juneau school officials told the legislative researcher that they had just been through a difficult budget cycle, losing among others two middle school counselors, two special education teachers, one technology position, and one high school career advisor.
Reach Lisa Demer at firstname.lastname@example.org  or 257-4390.
By LISA DEMER