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Should Anchorage close schools? Here’s what the school district’s efficiency consultant says.

Of Anchorage’s neighborhood schools, Inlet View Elementary near downtown has the highest utilization. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

A consultant hired by the Anchorage School District suggested in a recent report that the district close an elementary school on Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson and rebuild a tiny but popular school near downtown.

The report, by Shannon Bingham of Colorado-based Western Demographics, showed that some of Anchorage's 75 or so neighborhood schools are in high demand, like Inlet View Elementary in South Addition, while others aren't, like Aurora and Orion elementary schools on base.

"We are utilizing every single space that we have here, but our students are doing fine," Inlet View Principal Patricia Ahrens said in an interview Tuesday. "We are a very family- and community-oriented school. We have found that parents like that."

The financially stressed Anchorage School District is in the complicated position of projecting what enrollment will look like years from now while in a recession that has driven down Alaska's population. Enrollment at Anchorage schools also dropped this school year and the last. The new report, presented to the School Board on Monday, is part of the district's long-term planning process for its dozens of buildings.

Bingham looked at whether the district should close, consolidate or build schools.

"Shannon's job here was to give input so we don't do anything rash," Anchorage schools Superintendent Deena Bishop said at Monday's school board work session. "We wanted to ensure we were thinking about the future of Anchorage."

To arrive at his suggestions, Bingham said, he studied how many students attend the district's neighborhood schools, as well as projections for Anchorage's population about 20 years from now. He looked at the size and condition of the school buildings. (The report did not include the district's public charter schools.)

He also calculated schools' utilization rates by dividing enrollment by a standardized capacity for each building. The result shows just how crowded each school is, he said.

Once a school exceeds 100 percent utilization, like Inlet View, it does not mean the school is unsafe, he said. Instead, instruction space often starts to eat into common areas. For instance, an art room may become a classroom, with art supplies instead traveling on a cart between classes.

Bingham's ideas are simply suggestions, Bishop told the school board. The board will decide what the district does next, using the report as a guide.

Bingham told the board that Anchorage's population is projected to grow by 2040, and new housing could bring roughly 9,000 new students to the district. It's expected that much of the new housing would be near schools that could absorb additional students, he said.

However, he said, the size of the population on Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson is not expected to swell soon and some of its schools have a lot of space. Since 2011, the number of people living on JBER has dropped by 1,000, to about 9,400, according to Master Sgt. Joshua Jasper, a JBER spokesman.

According to Bingham's calculations, JBER's Aurora Elementary and Orion Elementary schools have the lowest utilization rates of Anchorage neighborhood schools followed by Mountain View Elementary.

He suggested closing Orion Elementary on base, currently at a 54 percent utilization rate. Those students could go to Aurora Elementary, a school about 1,000 feet away that's operating at 39 percent utilization. Some could also go to Mount Spurr Elementary, also on base and at 81 percent utilization.

Inlet View has the highest utilization rate at 142 percent, followed by Taku Elementary, near Old Seward Highway and 72nd Avenue, and South Anchorage's Rabbit Creek Elementary.

Inlet View Elementary School. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

Inlet View is one of Anchorage's smaller elementary schools. About 33 percent of Inlet View's 237 students attend the school through zone exemptions, while the rest live nearby, according to Catherine Esary, district spokeswoman.

The school has added two outdoor portables to accommodate more children on their property off N Street and 12th Avenue, said principal Ahrens. When students need to meet in small groups, they might use a staff conference room or offices.

"We do use every single small space to work with intervention groups," she said.

Bingham suggested knocking down Inlet View, constructed in 1957, and building a larger school. He also thinks the district should rebuild the aging Abbott Loop Elementary, built in 1958, with additions tacked on later, and Gruening Middle School, built in 1984.

When it comes school zones, he suggested that the district tweak its school boundaries around Taku Elementary, sending some of those students to Campbell Elementary, and around Ravenwood Elementary in Eagle River, sending some of those students roughly 2 miles away to Homestead Elementary.

He suggested that district officials think about asking Anchorage voters to approve larger bond packages every few years to pay for big construction projects, instead of a smaller bond each year. That would allow the district to build new schools when needed, he said.

Bishop asked the school board to review Bingham's report over the next few weeks and then give the district direction on what it should do next.

Bingham is also the consultant the district hired to study school start times. For his work on both projects, his contract totaled $96,345. The open house meetings on the possibility of shifting when Anchorage schools start and end are ongoing.

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