Education

With looming budget deficit, Anchorage School District faces potentially tough calls

Facing a major budget deficit, the Anchorage School District will likely need to make painful decisions about programs and school closures over the coming months, administrators and school board members say.

While it will be months before any specific, final choices are made, administrators and board members highlighted this week that those decisions will be likely be difficult given the extent of the budget shortfall, roughly $68 million.

The Anchorage School District administration is currently informing the public and the school board about various budget options, including detailing how much programs cost and what it would cost to close a school, superintendent Jharrett Bryantt said. The district’s operating funds will amount to approximately $550 million next year.

The administration is trying to give the school board multiple options for reaching a balanced budget over the next three months, something that’s required by state statute, ASD chief financial officer Jim Anderson said.

“We have a lot of tough decisions to make,” Anchorage School Board President Margo Bellamy said Wednesday.

The deficit didn’t emerge suddenly. Instead, it’s the result of mostly flat state funding for what’s known as the base student allocation, a significant part of how schools are funded in Alaska. Bryantt said since those funds aren’t inflation-proofed and aren’t enough to cover the district’s operations budget, ASD has relied on one-time funds, like federal COVID-19 relief dollars, which led to the shortfall.

State lawmakers could come through with the needed funds, said Corey Aist, president of the Anchorage Education Association, the union that represents the school district’s teachers. He said the issue creates unnecessary stress.

“The story really isn’t necessarily, what is the district going to cut and how are they going to go about that?” Aist said. “The question is, why is the district being forced to go through that process, when potentially the funding is still there?”

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In addition to advocating for inflation-proofed and adequate funding from the Alaska Legislature, Bellamy said that she’s focused on gathering information and seeking community input. The board has asked the administration to list what it costs the district to provide its educational programs.

“This is a process, and in order for the process to be successful, not just the board but, I think, our whole community needs to understand what our programs cost us,” Bellamy said.

During a school board work session Tuesday, administrators began that process by outlining costs associated with multiple programs, including the IGNITE gifted education program; elementary band and orchestra; as well as elementary, middle and high school language immersion programs.

Anderson said Wednesday that the district plans to provide the board a “smorgasbord of options,” and that many more items will show up in front of them. They’re looking at altering and changing programs, in addition to potential cuts, according to Anderson.

The administrators also described the potential for cost savings by moving sixth grade to middle school and presented multiple scenarios surrounding school closures. Timing-wise, the administration is still refining a list of schools for potential closures, Anderson said.

The Anchorage School District will send out a survey to families this week that asks people to rank roughly eight priorities, from facilities closures to activities, for potential reductions. By December, when the school board gives final guidance on building the budget, there will hopefully be $68 million worth of options, Anderson said.

“The truth is that many of those options are going to be difficult to make,” Anderson told the board on Tuesday. “But we have to make them, we’ve got to get by state statute a balanced budget.”

During the work session, school board member Andy Holleman underscored the difficulties that come with putting names and price tags on certain programs.

“Every one of these is a program that means the world to some kids, and we’re going to be forced to take that away,” Holleman said.

He said district needs to convey to the community that certain programs are at risk.

“It looks like a remarkably depressing year,” Holleman said.

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Morgan Krakow

Morgan Krakow is a general assignment reporter for the Anchorage Daily News. She is a 2019 graduate of the University of Oregon and spent the summer of 2019 as a reporting intern on the general assignment desk of The Washington Post. Contact her at mkrakow@adn.com.

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