Education

School closures likely as Anchorage School District reckons with a budget crisis

Anchorage School District education center board asd

The Anchorage School District later this month is set to present a list of schools for potential closure as it attempts to resolve a multimillion-dollar budget shortfall next year.

“I think the likelihood is incredibly high that we will close schools at the end of this year,” the district’s chief financial officer, Jim Anderson, said in a recent interview.

The school district hired consultant Shannon Bingham, who has helped close schools across the American West, to aid in determining school closure options in Anchorage.

Officials say the need to potentially cut programs and close schools stems from a budget issue that’s been brewing for years. The Alaska Legislature hasn’t raised the annual funding for Alaska’s school districts on a per-student basis — except for a small $30 increase in the last legislative session — since 2016.

Inflation has translated to significantly higher education costs each year, even as funding from the state has stayed flat, advocates and officials say. The Anchorage School District has been able to blunt some of those inflation-created gaps using one-time funds from various sources, but those extra funds have now run dry, and the school district will be short around $68 million in its 2024 budget.

[Anchorage School Board allocates almost $60 million in one-time state funding]

While the district considers school closures as a budget-balancing tactic, officials are also analyzing and presenting all of the district’s expenses and areas for potential cuts or changes — including insurance costs, special programs and activities — to school board members over the next several months.

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It will likely be a painful year, with tough decisions ahead.

At recent work sessions, administrators have gone through costs associated with athletics and other programs like language immersion and say they will still present more costs to the board in the months ahead.

“At the end of the day, getting from $68 million to zero — there’s probably a lot of unpopular decisions to be made,” Anderson said.

Officials say they’re not yet in the phase of making recommendations on cuts or changes to programs. But concern is mounting among district families and alumni. Supporters of district language immersion programs showed up in large numbers to testify to the school board about the program’s importance on Tuesday evening.

Corey Aist, president of the Anchorage Education Association, the local teacher’s union, said he’s alarmed at the scope of cuts to come. Aist said the whole process will stress an already-stressed community, noting the issue is rooted in a lack of inflation-proofed education funding at the state level.

“I don’t see how we’re going to cut $68 million from the budget without significantly impacting facilities and programs and staffing,” Aist said. “It’s an enormous task — every school is going to have constituents speaking to every program.”

In evaluating schools for potential closure, Bingham, whose contract with the district has an upper limit of $108,000, said he’s focused on schools that are small and have a projected decline in enrollment. He said he’ll also look at parts of the city with a high level of school density, meaning many schools in one area, and whether two or more adjacent schools could be combined.

Officials are also considering shifting sixth grade to middle school. In five years, the district could have 700 to 1,000 fewer middle schoolers, Bingham said, and officials would be able to run the schools at fuller capacity by shifting the sixth grade to middle school, allowing for more electives and course offerings, he said.

On Oct. 18, the district will list schools for potential closure both this year and next, Anderson said. The district plans to host both virtual and in-person evening town halls, from Oct. 26 through Nov. 3, at each school listed as a potential candidate for closure, according to the district.

The district’s enrollment has dropped from 48,734 students in 2013 to 44,320 students by September of this year. The district has 18 schools that operate below 65% capacity.

Enrollment in the school district will likely continue to decline by about 2% each year for the next five years, Bingham predicted. People are having fewer babies in Alaska, and every birth center in Anchorage has had a declining birth count — a trend expected to continue, Bingham said. That means fewer future students in the municipality.

School closures save money, but there are additional and perhaps more important benefits too, according to Anderson. The district would save roughly $500,000 per closed elementary school, “but increasing efficiency and level of service are equally or more important,” he said

Smaller schools can’t always deliver the same programs people want for each child, he said. Art, music and physical education lose funding as districts grow challenged, and certain specialized student services, like speech-language pathologists and counselors, aren’t as easy to provide at smaller schools.

“The whole idea behind considering consolidating and combining buildings is to make sure we continue to be able to deliver that level of service,” Bingham said.

The district is focusing its initial efforts on elementary and middle school changes but may look at other grade levels depending on what school board members decide, Anderson said.

It’s unclear how many schools the district may propose for closure or what would happen to the remaining buildings. The structures could be demolished, repurposed for other use or opened to charter schools.

After a school closes, officials said, they’ll work with staff to get them assigned to another school when possible and the school’s students would attend a different school as boundaries would change amid the closures.

“It’s very early in the budget process,” Anderson said. “So we don’t have all of the answers yet.”

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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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