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Anchorage School District could lose millions of dollars due to enrollment drop and uptick in home schooling

Enrollment in the Anchorage School District is down by thousands of students this year after officials opted to start classes online due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and many families are choosing home-school programs instead of neighborhood schools.

This could have a big impact on the district’s finances, ASD chief financial officer Jim Anderson told the Anchorage School Board on Tuesday.

In total, current enrollment within the Anchorage School District — which includes neighborhood schools, plus charter and home schools — is about 4,000 students less than last year, according to a report from Superintendent Deena Bishop to the board.

Bishop said that as of Tuesday, enrollment stood at 42,197 students, compared to 46,007 at the same time last year — or about a 9% drop.

Another 1,000 students have switched from neighborhood schools to the district’s home schools, Anderson said. Even though students are still technically enrolled in the district, classroom schools lose the funding they would have otherwise received for those students — funding that pays for things like teachers and programs for children.

Enrollment numbers will continue to shift and settle through September and the district’s financial picture will become clearer after that, Anderson said.

But the combination of the drop in enrollment districtwide plus the number of students who have moved from neighborhood schools to home schools means big funding changes for the district, he said. It could see about a $26 million impact to its funding, he said.

That impact can be broken into three pieces: About $10 million in funding will move from neighborhood schools to the district’s home school programs, Anderson said. He also expects about a $14 million shortfall in state and local revenue and a potential $2 million shortfall in transportation revenue from the state to the district without school buses running.

The district will save money on a few things such as fuel, maintenance and workers compensation, but it’s “certainly not enough to cover a $26 million shortfall,” he said.

Bishop said that as of Tuesday, 5,001 students had unenrolled from the district entirely.

So, where are all the students going?

The majority — 1,855 — have moved to state-run home school programs. Another 443 have moved to another Alaska school district and 425 moved out of state. Another 308 moved to a private school.

Only 3,031 of the transfer requests have been processed, so not all have been accounted for yet, according to Bishop’s presentation.

There are 36,299 students in the district’s neighborhood schools. There are 3,291 students in the new virtual school program, which is essentially a new home school that keeps the student enrolled in a neighborhood school, and 2,607 are in the three home schools: Family Partnership Charter School, Frontier Charter School and Paideia.

Anderson said he expects that some students will come back to the district once school buildings reopen for classes.

Bishop said it is important that kids get back into classrooms, but the district must examine several COVID-19 mitigation and safety factors when deciding. Those include the community conditions and the spread of the virus, school officials' ability to keep people in schools safe and the impact of school closures on the health and well-being of students.

The district is watching daily case numbers in Anchorage, but those numbers have been “sporadic," she said. However, new daily case tallies have been trending down since July, she said.

“I do believe strongly that kids should be back in school as soon as possible,” she said.

The district is in the process of creating an in-school reading program for the youngest students, which would bring them back to select schools in very small groups, Bishop said. That program may be up and running by the end of September, she said.

The school board on Tuesday also received written and live testimony from more than 30 school principals airing various complaints and speaking about the challenges of leading schools through the pandemic. The principals' union contract ended in June and is currently up for negotiation.

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