The Anchorage School District announced Tuesday that it will lay off 6 percent of its teachers, increase class sizes and ask secondary teachers to take on instructing an additional class during the school day as part of unprecedented cuts aimed at closing a $23 million budget gap.
"These reductions are unlike anything I've seen in my 23 years with the Anchorage School District," said school Superintendent Ed Graff, who presented the district's proposed budget for the 2014-15 school year in a press conference at district headquarters Tuesday.
The district has warned for months that the combination of rising costs driven by inflation and flat or declining funding from local, state and federal sources would force painful cuts.
But the depth and breadth of the reductions weren't clear until Tuesday.
The $566 million proposed general operating budget calls for the elimination of 219 "fulltime equivalent" positions.
Graff said 159 of those will be classroom teachers: 47 from elementary schools, 35 middle school teachers and 33 from high schools and alternative schools. Another 44 positions are going away because of a projected decline in enrollment.
Teachers will find out if they are being laid off by May 14, said district spokeswoman Heather Roach.
The district has reduced its work force by about 419 positions over the past four years, not including the newly announced cuts.
Until now, the district has largely avoided laying off classroom teachers by cutting administrative and support staff, as well as keeping vacant positions unfilled.
Graff said administration staff has been cut by 20 percent over those years.
The new proposal also hits school counselors. The proposed budget calls for a reduction of 10 specialized counselors for gifted, special education and English-as-a-second-language students.
The district said in response to community feedback it won't eliminate whole programs like art or music but will increase class sizes at the elementary level and ask middle and high school teachers to instruct an extra class during the school day to offset cuts.
On the elementary school level, layoffs include five physical education positions, as well as four music and art teachers. Remaining specialty teachers will be shared between schools so that all students can still take gym, art and music, Graff said.
Elementary school classes will increase by an average of one student, secondary classes by an average of 1.5 students.
At the middle-school level, teachers would lose one of two lesson planning periods.
High schools would move from a six-period to a seven-period schedule. Teachers would instruct an extra class each day, which the district says is a way to offer the same number and scope of course offerings with fewer teachers.
The budget will preserve much of the student experience but will put more work on the backs of teachers to achieve that, said Tam Agosti-Gisler, the school board president and a former teacher. She's gotten lots of calls from angry teachers.
"They see this as a devaluation of the incredibly difficult work that they do," she said. "But we're always looking out for the best interests of our students. I think that's always been the case for educators."
The budget also calls for the elimination of high school swimming classes (which won't affect after-school swimming and diving, according to the district), a $1.3 million cut in supplies and materials and a $170,000 cut from high school sports, savings generated in part by outsourcing girls' hockey. The district also said it is looking at raising student activity fees by 10 percent. It will match federal reductions to JROTC programs, to the tune of $140,000.
School Board members have been pleading with the Legislature to add money to the "base student allocation," a per-student payment that funds 57 percent of the district's operating budget and hasn't been increased in three years.
"At very least we'd like to have base student allocation inflation proofed," said Agosti-Gisler. "And help from the Legislature on our biggest cost drivers, which are health care and unfunded retirement liabilities."
The district receives the maximum allowable local property tax contribution under state law, about $194 million or 34 percent of the budget.
Federal funding, which makes up about $45 million of the operating budget, has been in decline in recent years, due to the end of recession-era stimulus programs and "sequestration" reductions, ASD finance head Mark Foster said.
Tim Fitzpatrick, whose kindergartner daughter is in the highly gifted program, took time from his job as a public relations consultant to attend the press conference Tuesday. He was the only non-reporter to ask a question: Would the highly gifted program be cut?
Yes, the superintendent said: A secondary school counselor for highly gifted students would be eliminated.
After the press conference Fitzpatrick said he hoped the Legislature would explain its rationale for not increasing per-student funding.
"I think the Legislature owes parents and the district an explanation," he said. "I'd be curious as to why that funding hasn't increased, as least with an index for inflation."
He and his wife moved to Anchorage from Philadelphia, where the school district is so broke that it had to get a last-minute, $50 million loan just to open schools with minimum staffing for safety last year.
In Philadelphia, sending his children to public schools was "just not an option," Fitzpatrick said.
He's happy with his daughter's education in Anchorage so far, he said, but is concerned that the cuts announced Tuesday are a sign of things to come.
"If our schools aren't one of our main priorities for the state, I'm not sure what is," he said.
Reach Michelle Theriault Boots at firstname.lastname@example.org  or 257-4344.
District's proposed budget reductions
• Cut 219 positions, administration, instructional support, classroom teachers
• Increase pupil-teacher ratios
• Reduce classroom teachers by 6.1 percent (159 positions)
• 22.5 positions cut from central administration
• High school, middle school teachers instruct one more class per day
• High schools move to seven-period schedule
• Reduce the number of specialized secondary school counselors
• Eliminate high school swimming classes
• Cut supplies and materials by $1.3 million
• Cut $170,000 from high school sports
• Cut $150,000 from the facilities department
• Consider a 10 percent increase in student activity fees
• By matching federal reductions to Junior ROTC, save $140,000Coming Up
January 21 -- Preliminary budget released, press conference
January 23 -- School board work session, early and late meetings on preliminary budget
February 3 -- School board late session meeting, first reading of preliminary budget
February 20 -- School board late session meeting, second reading of preliminary budget
March 11 -- Assembly meeting (reading) on proposed budget
March 25 -- Assembly meeting (action) on proposed budgetClassroom Instruction loss*
Elementary Schools -- 47
Middle Schools -- 35
High Schools and Alternative Schools -- 33
Reduction due to decreased enrollment -- 44
*Position reduction is full time equivalent
By MICHELLE THERIAULT BOOTS