The Anchorage School Board on Tuesday approved a preliminary budget for the 2018-19 school year that raises class sizes in grades 7 through 12 and cuts about 60 classroom teaching positions, nearly half of those due to shrinking enrollment.
Since 2015, Alaska lawmakers have raised per-student funding a total of 1.7 percent, to $5,930 from $5,830. As school districts grapple with rising costs, such as health insurance, they have cut jobs, increased class sizes and trimmed services.
At Anchorage public schools, flat funding is expected to leave a roughly $13 million budget gap next school year, according to district officials. The budget approved Tuesday night plugs the gap with about $4 million in savings and the rest through cuts.
"It was choices that we didn't want to make," Anchorage Schools Superintendent Deena Bishop said after the school board meeting. "We tried to keep teachers and cut in other areas."
The school board approved the $559 million general fund budget in a 6-1 vote, with member Dave Donley casting the dissenting vote.
Bishop said the budget is the first iteration of the district's spending plan. The district doesn't yet know how much state funding it will get, she said, but it must present a balanced budget to the Anchorage Assembly by the first Monday in March.
"So this is the balanced budget, but our advocacy for kids doesn't stop with this budget," she said. "I'm going and advocating for additional funding."
The approved budget eliminates about 31 full-time middle and high school teaching positions, plus 27 full-time classroom teachers due to declining enrollment.
The district's chief financial officer, Jim Anderson, said schools are expected to absorb the cuts through attrition — choosing not to fill positions after teachers retire or quit — and not through layoffs.
The cuts will increase class sizes from an average of 27 students in grades 7 and 8 to an average of 28 students. In high school, the average class size would climb by two, from 29 to 31, according to budget documents.
The budget also includes a three-day unpaid furlough for district administrators and eliminates the equivalent of roughly 23 full-time custodians and five custodial supervisors. It cuts 10 "teacher experts," experienced teachers at the district level often tasked with helping implement programs, and attempts to trim costs from the district's gifted program by moving secretarial work to district headquarters.
Investments in the budget include a new English/Language Arts curriculum, new computers and increases in special education staff, driven by more student need.
By next school year, the district will also have transformed its Martin Luther King Jr. Career Center into a public high school where students can enroll full-time. The change is expected to generate about $1 million in additional revenue, since it will be considered a school in the state's funding formula and the formula provides more money for students in smaller schools, Anderson said.
Conversations at Tuesday's board meeting centered on the lack of money to fund a lot of things the district needs to do.
"We're in a terrible situation," Bishop told the board.
School staff and students told the board they wanted it to add money for counselors, since not every school has one.
Numerous people also asked the board to invest in a French immersion program.
If board members wanted to make additions, Bishop told them, it would have to cut from somewhere else. About 88 percent of the budget pays for staff salaries and benefits.
"We're robbing Peter to pay Paul," said school board member Starr Marsett.
The board ultimately made no changes to the budget crafted by the district administration.
The Anchorage Assembly will vote on the district's budget March 20. The spending plan could change later, depending on the Legislature's budget, Bishop said.
The board also unanimously approved a one-year contract with the Anchorage Education Association teachers union after more than two years of negotiations. The contract goes into effect retroactively to July 1, 2017 and expires June 30.