Anchorage School Board members are advocating for increased education funding after they approved a proposed budget for the 2019-20 school year on Tuesday that includes more state money than the district got this year, and that doesn’t take into account the significant cuts proposed by the governor.
“We have to be advocates for our students here in Anchorage," School Board president Starr Marsett said during Tuesday night’s meeting. "I think it’s time for us to speak up and say, ‘This is what Anchorage needs to educate their students in an equitable and adequate fashion.’”
As the Alaska Legislature debates the budget, the Anchorage School Board faces a local deadline: It must get next school year’s budget to the Anchorage Assembly by the first Monday in March.
Without firm funding numbers from Juneau, district officials said they crafted next year’s proposed budget based on what’s currently in law: The same level of per-student funding as the current year, plus a one-time payout of $30 million to be split between Alaska’s public schools.
The state Legislature agreed to that funding last year, though Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy — who was elected in November — has proposed significant spending cuts, including slashing hundreds of millions of dollars for K-12 education in the upcoming budget year, which starts July 1.
Under Dunleavy’s proposal, the Anchorage School District has estimated it would lose roughly $105 million in operating funds, or receive nearly 20 percent less than what it anticipated based on current law. That doesn’t take into account other proposals from the governor such as the elimination of the state program that reimburses school districts for bond debt and the elimination of pre-K grant funding.
The proposed 2019-20 budget approved by the school board Tuesday totals about $885.9 million, roughly 13 percent more than the current school year’s budget. That total doesn’t include retirement plan payments. It does include budget requests for additional money from the state such as $13 million for half-day pre-K and $68 million to reduce class sizes.
It’s not typical for the school board — at least recently — to ask the Legislature for additional chunks of money to fund specific items, but this year the board decided to ask the state for what the district needs, Marsett said in an interview Thursday from Juneau, where she was advocating for education funding.
“We’re asking for adequate funding, which we haven’t had in the past five years,” she said.
The proposed budget passed in a 5-2 vote Tuesday night. Board members Elisa Snelling and Dave Donley, who also works as a deputy commissioner in the Dunleavy administration, voted against it. Donley said near the end of the meeting that he’d tried all evening to reduce the budget. All of his budget amendments failed to earn a majority of votes, except for one that reduced school board operations’ funding by $3,000.
The proposed budget is just the first iteration of next school year’s spending plan, Marsett said. The board will make changes after state lawmakers approve a budget.
“It’s going to be very interesting for the next few months,” Marsett said.
The school district’s proposed budget includes:
• No increases to the student-to-teacher ratio, which helps determine staffing and class sizes. It’s the first time in three years that the budget hasn’t included an increase, according to Jim Anderson, district chief financial officer. In a 4-3 vote, the board also approved a $68 million legislative budget request to reduce the student-to-teacher ratio to 15 in kindergarten through third grade and 25 in grades 4 to 12. Currently, the ratio ranges from 21 students per teacher in kindergarten to 30 students per teacher in grades 9 through 12.
• The elimination of about 76 full-time teaching positions due to decreased student enrollment. It’s expected those cuts would be absorbed through attrition, Anderson said. The budget also includes funding for about 26 additional special education pre-K teachers and teaching assistants.
• The school board added $200,000 to “support the middle school model" in a 4-3 vote Tuesday. This was one of the more contentious issues during contract negotiations between the district and local teachers union.
Over the next few months, district officials will closely monitor the work in Juneau and come up with contingency plans for the “best-case, worst-case and most-likely” budget scenarios, Anderson said.