The Anchorage School District has fewer students this year than it expected and administrators aren't sure exactly why.
"I think everyone is trying to figure out the factors," said Jim Anderson, the district's chief financial officer.
The number of full-time equivalent students enrolled in Anchorage schools this year is about 715 fewer than last year, based on preliminary numbers provided by Anderson. That's enough to fill two of the district's smaller elementary schools. The district expected its student count to decline this school year, but only by about 240.
Anderson said in an interview Monday that Anchorage schools started trimming expenses in September when it became apparent that the student count was below expectations.
The district put a two-week hiring delay in place, Anderson said, and started turning the lights off earlier at many elementary schools. That could save between about $1.3 million and $2.3 million by the end of this school year, he said.
Anderson said it's unclear what else the district might have to do to balance its budget.
The school district submitted its smaller-than-expected student count to the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development last week. The number — called the average daily membership — is an annual head count used in Alaska to determine school funding. It's based on the district's average enrollment over a 20-day period in October and, in part, adds up students based on their hours in school. (For instance, two part-time students count as one full-time equivalent student).
The state education department still must audit the student counts submitted by Alaska's public school districts. To determine school funding, the department then applies a complicated formula to the numbers, taking into account a list of factors including school size and students with intensive needs.
The Anchorage School District counted about 46,964 full-time equivalent students this fall during its 20-day count, according to Anderson. That's about a 1.5 percent decrease from last year's number.
But, Anderson said, the preliminary numbers also show that the district enrolled 42 more students with intensive needs this year than it expected. Those students receive more state funding, Anderson said.
Because of that, the district is expecting to receive about $307,000 more in funding this year than it projected, despite enrolling fewer students overall, Anderson said. He said the district was calculating the total funding needed for the rest of the year to provide those students with support.
"We didn't project additional intensive needs money, but we also didn't project additional intensive needs expenses," he said. "While the funding goes up, we know that the expenses needed to support that group of students is also going up."
Anderson said the district will continue to review its 2017-18 school year budget and make any adjustments necessary due to the changes in student count. He said he did not expect any changes to school staffing since the student count shortfall is spread over dozens of schools.
As far as why the district's student count fell this year, Anderson said he didn't know. It's the second year in a row the number decreased.
Anderson said he didn't know whether more parents decided to home-school their children or whether more families moved away, either out of state or to a different school district.
He cautioned: "I wouldn't take this and say, 'This is proof that Anchorage is shrinking,' because it's just one little data point."
Anchorage's population estimate for 2017 won't be available until January, according to the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development.
Bill Popp, president and chief executive of the Anchorage Economic and Development Corporation, said he couldn't say exactly why the school district's student count fell this year, but he speculated that it was in part due to Alaska's struggling economy.
"I would say some of the families are moving to the Valley because of the cheaper housing cost and I think we also have families who are moving to the Lower 48 because the national economy is doing quite well," Popp said.
The Anchorage School District isn't the only Alaska district enrolling fewer students this year.
Of Alaska's five largest school districts, only the Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District reported a higher number of full-time equivalent students this year compared to last year, according to district officials who cited preliminary data for 2017-18.
The school districts in Fairbanks, Juneau and Kenai all reported slightly smaller student counts.
In Juneau, the number of full-time equivalent students dropped by just over 2 percent compared to last year, said Kristin Bartlett, district chief of staff.
"Generally, the enrollment has been steadily declining over a long period of time," she said. "We have had a loss of state jobs in our community which sort of trickles down to a loss of population."
*Editor's note: This story has been updated to clarify that 2017-18 is the second year in a row the number of full-time equivalent students at ASD has decreased.