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Districts try to trim overhead as enrollment, budgets decline

  • Author: Naomi Klouda, Alaska Journal of Commerce
  • Updated: January 21, 2018
  • Published January 21, 2018

On Kodiak Island, eight village schools now share a single principal.
Cutting principal positions from the schools lowered administrative costs for the Kodiak Island Borough School District according to Superintendent Larry LeDoux.

Last year, the district of 2,420 students, spread out hundreds of miles from Akhiok on the southern end to Ouzinkie in the north, lost $1.9 million in its operating budget. Cuts came in part from a 25 percent state budget cut that formerly shared new construction costs between the state and local boroughs that bonded for them.

"Then because of declining enrollment, another several hundred thousand dollars was lost from our budget," LeDoux said. "Our one principal is on the airplane all the time."

The Kodiak district is among more than 50 statewide that are holding the line on expenses amid state budget cuts, rising staff insurance costs and status quo BSA, or base student allocation, funding.

What those principals and assistants to the superintendents are paid is often cited as an area of overhead schools should continue to cut. Data from the Department of Education and Early Development shows districts continually cutting and readjusting in the three areas of what's designated as "administrative staff.

The first category saw the fewest changes, under the heading of administration leaders. These are the superintendents, principals, directors of maintenance, public information coordinators and special assistants.

In that category, all school districts combined saw a 0.6 percent increase over the five school years from 2012-16. In 2012, state school districts had 629 administrators and 633 in 2016.

Losses came in a second group known as program staff. This includes bilingual coordinators, directors of federal aid programs, special education coordinators and staff development. This group shrank by 5.9 percent, from 422 to 397, over the five years from 2012-16.

The third category involves occupational therapists, speech therapists, career counselors, curriculum specialists and school nurses.

That group saw a 2.7 percent decline statewide over the five-year period, from 1,017 to 990.

Each fall, districts report all certified staff employed as of Oct. 1. These numbers do not count teachers or classified staff, Education Department data progaram manager Brian Laurent said. Counts are unduplicated within each job group, but not across job groups, he added. The figures include any staff member with some full-time equivalency or FTE assigned to one or more positions in the job group.

Counts are unduplicated within each job group, but not across job groups. For example, a principal who also serves as director of special education would be included in both the administrative staff and in program staff, Laurent said.

"The school districts report responsibilities and they may have staff that do multiple duties," Laurent said. This makes the raw data not as meaningful without followup from each district.

"But what I find most interesting is that the numbers prompt conversations with the school districts and every one of the 54 are different. Each has its own story to tell. We provide the numbers. I think it's great that we're prompting these questions."

Juneau gets creative with cuts

At the Juneau School District, downsizing amounted to $11 million in cuts and loss of 92 positions over five years, said Chief of Staff Kristin Bartlett.
Creative recombining is keeping some programs from ending, she added.

"Our graduation rate is up to the highest at 86 percent. We're feeling good about that," Bartlett said. (Statewide graduation rates were 76.1 in 2016).

Of the 92 positions cut, some were physical therapists and occupational specialists, which are now contracted out. The JSD also reduced an assistant superintendent position and several assistant principals.

An uptick in the number of special education students in the recent year meant hiring additional staff that were reduced in previous years because of lower student counts, she said.

"Our strategy has been to keep cuts away from the classroom. We made a lot of administrative cuts, as well as to support that surround the class but aren't teachers," Bartlett said.

After cutting and creative recombining, the district is looking at cuts that could do greater harm to students, meaning larger classrooms and loss of teachers for the gifted programs. Formerly, six enrichment teachers served six elementary schools. Now three such teachers travel school-to-school, she said. Science coaches, literacy coaches, information technology and maintenance staff also were cut.

"The closer cuts get to the classroom, the more harm they do the students," Bartlett said.

Every district is different

The Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District has a different problem: growth.
Nevertheless, that district also has fewer administrative program positions over the past five years.

The Wasilla-Palmer area is the fastest growing area of the state, now with a population of 101,095, and spokeswoman Jillian Morrissey said the district grew by more than 150 new pupils this year to 18,894. Last year counted about 300 additional students since 2014.

"We are still finding more desks, more chairs and more classrooms to put kids in our schools," Morrissey said. "At the same time we've had flat funding in both areas, from the state and from the borough. That's meant a loss of funds per student."

Of the big five school districts — Anchorage, Fairbanks, Kenai, Juneau and Mat-Su — "we receive the lowest level of local funding contributions compared to other funding districts," she added.

Two new schools were built to accommodate the burgeoning population, Dena'ina Elementary and Redington High School in the Knik-Fairview area.
The need to hire teachers also continues for the Mat-Su district. For the 2017-18 school year, Mat-Su added 50-75 teachers but only a few were new hires as shifts were made through attrition to keep costs down, Morrissey said. About 85 fulltime equivalents, however, were cut from the budget last year.

"We're still an anomaly in the state, but now is not a good time to build new schools," she said. "We use portables since we're not currently adding on to schools."

Aiming at insurance costs

Fairbanks North Star Borough School District's population has gone down by about 3 percent, not as much as some of the rural school districts that encompass villages where economic conditions forced families to move out.

Through budget cuts, the district also lost more than 10 percent of its support positions in two categories. But Chief Financial Officer Lisa Pearce said part of the problem stems from an inability to attract professional support staff such as nurses, who are incentivized through better pay to pursue private sector employment options.

The district has been forced to outsource to fulfill special education staffing requirements, she said.

"Flat funding does cause us to move backwards," Pearce said. "We have contractual obligations. Our cost of doing business increases, but our budgets do not."

The district owes $3 million this year to meet its contractual obligations with three bargaining units of unionized teachers, staff and principals, she said.
But a bright spot for the Fairbanks district came from making major changes to the structure of their employee health care plans in a desperate move to reduce costs.

"We saw a savings on health care costs because of this major change, decreasing our cost by 2 percent. While you'll hear horror stories of increases, ours went down," she said.

Kodiak's troubled economy

School budgets are complicated and troubles don't come from one place, LeDoux notes.

Unlike the Mat-Su district, Kodiak's entire island population has made some sharp shifts downward. Two schools — one at Karluk and one at Port Lions — likely will close next fall due to fewer than 10 students enrolled.

But even in the City of Kodiak, student enrollment has dropped, LeDoux said. Overall, the district is gearing up for about 50 fewer students in a district that carries about 2,500 students.

"Commercial fishing has seen some real losses the past few seasons. Fewer fishing permits are owned by people in the villages, and so they move out to find work," LeDoux said.

Estimates for Kodiak Island's population are 13,287 for 2017, down from over 13,700 in 2015. Over the last 10 years, Kodiak Island schools lost about 200 pupils, LeDoux said.

Lower population numbers translates to lower budgets, he adds. But yet another area is a direct hit from state budget cuts. The Legislature made the decision to cut the state's share of school construction from 80 percent to 75 percent to 50 percent.

That meant Kodiak Island Borough was left with an additional 25 percent of the construction costs on a new $80 million Kodiak High School, LeDoux said.

The borough's medical insurance costs, meanwhile, also rose 8 percent this year, on the heels of a 16 percent increase a few years ago, the superintendent added.

"We're caught between a rock and hard place. It's getting very difficult. We spend a lot of time just doing budgets," LeDoux said.

"Yet we have great people working hard to make it work. I always say our business is kids, one by one. There's no success like one child. And there's no failure like one child."

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