The Anchorage School District on Tuesday said it was recommending closing six elementary schools after this school year as it attempts to reconcile a projected multimillion-dollar budget shortfall next year.
Though expected, the announcement drew frustration and sadness from members of the community, as well as political finger pointing.
Decisions around closures will not be finalized until December, superintendent Jharrett Bryantt wrote in an email to staff and families Tuesday afternoon.
“This is an incredibly emotional and painful topic to hear, particularly after the immense strain put on our community due to the pandemic,” Bryantt wrote.
The schools the district has recommended for closure are:
• Abbott Loop Elementary
• Birchwood Elementary
• Klatt Elementary
• Northwood Elementary
• Nunaka Valley Elementary
• Wonder Park Elementary
Among the schools recommended for closure, all but Birchwood Elementary are Title I schools, meaning they have a large portion of students who qualify for free and reduced lunches.
The district had warned such an announcement was coming, and had hired a consultant to help make the recommendations.
In the letter, Bryantt outlined various factors that have led the district to consider school closures, including a continued decline in enrollment and flat education funding from the state.
That enrollment decline impacts how much funding the district receives from the state of Alaska and means buildings are under capacity, which makes it hard to offer electives and other student services.
Additionally, Bryantt said, the district “has been given insufficient and unstable funding from the (state of Alaska) for years, and it is hurting our schools. Even if our enrollment had not declined, a dollar does not stretch as far in 2022 as it did in 2017.”
The district is facing a roughly $68 million budget shortfall in next year’s budget. The per-student funds from the state have stayed almost entirely flat for years, and the district has relied on pandemic relief dollars to plug budget holes as inflation has pushed the cost of education up over the years. But that funding has now expired, and the district must figure out a deficit solution.
School closures are just one of the options school board members will consider as they try to pass a balanced budget this winter, as required by state statute. District administrators have been analyzing all of the costs associated with programs, activities and schedules, aiming to give board members various options for cuts and changes.
The district plans to hold town halls in November and conduct additional surveys.
It’s hard to know the impact the closures will have on staff, said Corey Aist, president of the Anchorage Education Association, the district’s teachers union. He noted that the recommendations are a starting point and not an ending point, with tens of millions of dollars that still need to be cut in order to pass a balanced budget in February.
“The district is being kind of ripped apart, a stab at a time, a slash at a time,” Aist said.
The district has hired Shannon Bingham from the planning firm Western Demographics to assist with the closures. According to Bingham, the district’s enrollment will likely continue declining by 2% each year for the next five years. Birth counts are also declining in Anchorage, which means fewer future students in the community.
Closure of each elementary school saves the district $500,000 per school, and the closures would save the district a total of $3.4 million to $4 million, according to chief financial officer Jim Anderson — about 5% of the district’s overall budget deficit.
In a previous interview, Bingham said in determining a list of schools for recommended closure, the district was focused on smaller schools that have a projected decline in enrollment and whether nearby schools could be combined.
Within the Anchorage School District, Bingham said respondents to a survey said they would prefer consolidating buildings over cutting programs.
Across the district, 18 schools are below 65% capacity, and has lost some 5,000 students since the 2012-13 school year. At the same time, the district has a $24 million maintenance budget, spending money on buildings that aren’t being used at full capacity, he said.
With smaller schools, special programs staff like nurses, coaches, counselors and speech pathologists are spread thin and transported across several schools.
Mark Stock, deputy superintendent, told board members that adding students to schools reduces the number of combined-grade classrooms, increases substitute teacher capacity, and also helps with the onboarding of new teachers. Additionally, teachers can segment students into groups to work with some who need more remedial instruction and others who would benefit from advanced classwork.
Bingham said he and the district are still looking for input from parents, teachers and faculty. During previous projects, Bingham said, he’s modified school closure proposals based on parent input or recommended an alternative suggested by a parent.
Bingham said at the work session that districts across the West are facing similar challenges in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Nationwide, more people have turned to church, private and charter schools as well as online learning, which has impacted Anchorage too.
“We’re pretty much seeing a rash of school closure all around the Western United States as districts come to grips with the current financial realities,” Bingham said.
Where students would go instead
During his presentation, Bingham described where each closed school’s students would attend classes next year.
Abbott Loop students who live north of East 88th Avenue would attend Kasuun Elementary, while those who live south of East 88th would attend Trailside Elementary.
Birchwood’s general education students would be assigned to Homestead Elementary School, and the school’s special education students would go to Fire Lake Elementary.
Nunaka Valley students who live east of Boniface Parkway would go to Chester Valley Elementary, while those who live west of Boniface would attend Russian Jack Elementary.
Northwood’s students would attend Lake Hood Elementary, while some Lake Hood students in the area of Milky Way Drive could get transferred to Turnagain Elementary, though Bingham said he wants to look at pedestrian and transportation issues there.
At Wonder Park, officials proposed that students would be placed at Williwaw Elementary, making the school more general education-centric and redistributing many of the self-contained, special education students to other buildings in the area.
At Klatt Elementary, the district has proposed that students who live immediately near the school, south of Minnesota Drive, would be assigned to Ocean View Elementary. But students who live in the Dimond Estates Mobile Home Park and attend Klatt roughly 3.5 miles away, “an extreme outlier,” would be assigned to Campbell STEM Elementary, a closer school, and they would have the opportunity to participate in the science technology engineering and math programming, Bingham said.
Most of the schools recommended for closure were at 69% student capacity or lower, though Klatt Elementary is 92% full. Anderson, with the district, said Klatt is on the closure recommendation list because of how small it is, and that those students could be transferred to larger schools.
He also said the district was intentional about helping students who live in Dimond Estates and were several miles from school.
“They were one of the most disenfranchised groups of students,” Anderson said. “And we knew we needed to take care of that group.”
Town halls are being offered for elementary schools to choose on Nov. 2, 3, 14, 16 or 22, and that there will be a lottery for dates if multiple schools want the town halls on the same day.
Each town hall will consist of a 4 p.m. faculty meeting and a 6:30-7:30 p.m. in-person parent meeting where various staff members will be around to answer questions, while a virtual meeting would follow for parents unable to attend the in-person meeting, Bingham said.
The district also has a draft plan for what they’ll do with the closed school buildings, though that’s subject to change as officials hear from the community, Anderson said.
As the budget discussions continue, the district is also looking at other cost-saving measures like administrative cuts, discussing pupil-to-teacher ratios and shifting sixth grade to middle school.
Officials say switching sixth graders to middle school would reduce costs and increase both scheduling options and elective offerings for students, a decision that the board will consider in November.
Anderson, with the district, said officials will also consider administrative reductions, which he called “the most politically acceptable thing to ever cut,” but cautioned that cutting a position that does something for 90 schools adds more work for those 90 principals. The district also plans to discuss the pupil-to-teacher ratio in the future as well as other potential school combinations.
The school district’s announcement came exactly three weeks before Election Day and landed in the middle of Alaska’s gubernatorial race.
On social media, one of Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s challengers immediately seized on the announcement:
“This is Dunleavy’s Alaska,” independent former Gov Bill Walker’s campaign said on Twitter. In a separate tweet, Heidi Drygas, Walker’s running mate, called the proposed closures “Dunleavy’s doing.”
In a prepared statement, the Dunleavy campaign said “the proposed actions are unfortunate news for students, parents, and teachers,” adding, “Under our Constitutional requirement for maximum local control, it is ultimately up to Anchorage administrators, elected officials, and the voters to determine the best course of action for Anchorage schools … The fiscal issues the Anchorage School District must address didn’t develop overnight, and they won’t be solved overnight. What won’t solve the issue are cynical and opportunistic attempts at political point scoring.”
Dunleavy, a former teacher, superintendent and school board member, proposed a budget in 2019 that would have cut school funding by $300 million, or roughly 19%, but he ultimately withdrew that idea when met with widespread backlash.
Dunleavy had long supported a reading intervention bill, aimed at improving outcomes, and repeatedly said he would not support a permanent and substantial increase to school funding without one. The Legislature put $57 million in one-time school funding in the budget and narrowly passed the Alaska Reads Act earlier in the year.
The measure included a 0.5% increase to the per-student funding formula, a first since 2017, but the urban consumer price index has risen by 15.4% over the same period, meaning virtually the same level of funding is worth significantly less.
“It’s a chaos situation,” Walker said in an interview, noting he has four grandchildren in the Anchorage School District. He said the school closures were “unprecedented” and that if he were governor, he would immediately call a special session to deal with school funding.
Walker has proposed establishing an education endowment with revenue from resource development. He said that Alaska’s school funding formula needed to “catch up” with soaring inflation and that the increase approved earlier in the year was “absolutely not sufficient.”
Democrat Les Gara, a former Anchorage legislator who is also running for governor, said, “we’re in the worst education crisis in state history.” He recently pledged to introduce education-related legislation if elected.
Gara said his plan had three central points: He wants to increase school funding to catch up to some of the $120 million lost to inflation since 2014, funding would then be indexed to inflation and teachers would again be eligible for a defined benefits retirement scheme.
Former Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Charlie Pierce, a Republican, did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday. He recently participated in an Anchorage gubernatorial forum, and said school administrative costs were too high and funding for new teachers was too low.
“I would say my plan would be to flip that,” Pierce said.
Other Alaska political leaders also weighed in on the closures. Anchorage Democratic Sen. Tom Begich, a Nunaka Valley Elementary School alumnus, hoped administrators had been strategic in recommending schools to close to minimize impacts to students. Begich, who was a chief author of the Alaska Reads Act and is not running for reelection, said he would advocate for a school funding increase next year with legislators and whoever is in the governor’s office.
The proposed closures sounded “pretty radical” to Republican Sen. Roger Holland, co-chair of the Senate Education Committee, but he said perhaps that would better reflect declining enrollment across the district. A supporter of the Alaska Reads Act, Holland stressed that he is not an education expert, but he said increasing school funding statewide would not necessarily help in Anchorage.
“We don’t have a revenue problem. We have a spending problem in the Anchorage School District,” he said.
The Anchorage superintendent’s letter called out state leaders for the current situation:
“The reality is our schools are being underfunded and it was never addressed by our state government,” Bryantt said. “And that’s how we got to this point.”
Others expressed similar frustrations.
While teachers are in the classroom with students each day and the district tries to support them, Aist asked: “Where is our Alaska Legislature and our Alaska governor in doing their part and providing proper funding?”
Clarification: This story has been updated to reflect Democratic gubernatorial candidate Les Gara’s position on increasing school funding after he said he misspoke. Gara said he wants the state to increase school funding and to catch up some of the $120 million lost to inflation since 2014, depending on what the state can afford, not necessarily all.