After Anchorage School District administrators this week recommended closing six elementary schools after the current school year to help balance its budget, the news began to filter through communities and ricochet throughout the political world.
For some parents and teachers, the recommendations brought shock and heartbreak, as they feared their neighborhood schools would soon shut their doors.
And as the November election approaches, education funding sprang to the forefront of the campaign trail and landed in the middle of a recent governor’s debate.
The school district presented six elementary schools for potential closure to school board members Tuesday as one of many ways to save money amid a projected $68 million budget shortfall next year. The board will have to decide by December whether to act on the suggested closures.
Airis Messick’s son is a sixth grader at Northwood, one of the schools recommended for closure. She went to school there too, and she’s president of the PTA.
Northwood is special to her, and the recommendation to close it is devastating, Messick said. It’s common to see kids walking to and from Northwood, which turns 70 next year, she said. The elementary school is a big part of the Spenard community, Messick said, and the kids use the school’s playground all summer.
Losing Northwood would mean the students couldn’t walk to school and would need to be bused to their new school.
“Our community is very heartbroken over this news,” she said. “Our schools are the lifeline. It’s how we communicate. It’s how we fundraise. It’s how families who are in need receive the help that they need. With removing these schools, you’re removing help for those that need it and turning away people who don’t really have anywhere else to go.”
In addition to Northwood, the school district is recommending closing Abbott Loop Elementary, Birchwood Elementary, Klatt Elementary, Nunaka Valley Elementary and Wonder Park Elementary.
Erin Klassen said the potential closure of Birchwood Elementary will have a big impact on her third grade daughter, who attends school there.
“This school is a second home,” Klassen wrote over email. “I feel this would be very hard on her specifically because of the COVID pandemic.”
Klassen’s daughter did much of her initial schooling remotely, and this was the first year that began to feel normal, she said.
“But now, we’re not even through the first quarter of this year and the school board wants to rip the rug out from under her feet,” she said.
Klassen said she wants the town halls planned for the schools on the recommended closure list to happen in the school buildings and during the school day. She blamed the current budget issues on overspending by the district.
“I feel ... frustrated. Angry,” Klassen said. “I feel like my child has been through enough these past few years. Give her a break.”
Krista Sandhoefner has been a teacher at Klatt Elementary for 16 years. She currently teaches sixth grade there. Sandhoefner said she knew closing schools was on the table but said she never thought Klatt would be considered since it’s at 92% capacity.
”Morale is very low,” Sandhoefner said. “We have received zero guidance from the district. We’ve been told that we all will have a job, but other than that — zero guidance.”
[Anchorage School Board allocates almost $60 million in one-time state funding]
Sandhoefner has questions over whether that means they need to apply for a job, or if the staff will be told where they’re headed next.
She also said teachers at Klatt are deeply connected to the students, including the more than 100 who live in Dimond Estates Mobile Home Park, and she wonders if the advocacy and support they’ve long provided for those students would continue elsewhere.
Across the district, in East Anchorage, two schools were recommended for closure: Wonder Park Elementary and Nunaka Valley Elementary.
“I’ve already heard from people that have some despair and some angst about what this is,” said George Martinez, president of the Northeast Community Council, which represents the area where Nunaka Valley Elementary is located.
Martinez said that East Anchorage was embroiled in a redistricting issue, and then over the summer, residents were “blindsided by Centennial Park,” referring to Mayor Dave Bronson’s decision this summer to shutter a mass homeless shelter at Sullivan Arena and direct unhoused individuals to stay at the campground in the area.
Emotions are raw, and nerves are exposed, he said.
“There’s kind of a feeling in East Anchorage that there’s a target on the backs of our community,” Martinez said.
Martinez said he’s also heard questions regarding why most of the schools listed for recommended closure are primarily Title I schools —where many students come from lower-income families and qualify for free and reduced lunch.
“If you look at the demographics and look at the services provided, you just begin to recognize that by definition, these schools are the schools with less community and/or parental resources for children,” Martinez said.
Shannon Bingham, the consultant hired by the district to help with the closure plans, said when schools were built in Northeast Anchorage, many households had larger families, so schools were built in a dense pattern.
“A lot of these denser parts of the district where we had two underutilized schools next to each other happened to be Title I schools — that’s the reason why we wound up with that situation,” Bingham said.
He said the district tried to distribute the impact of the potential closures geographically, but also that the district has a high percentage of Title I schools.
[Anchorage families reshuffle schedules and lose sleep as school bus driver shortage drags on]
Bingham said he suspects the district will continue to close more schools. Those closures would likely be located around the city.
Jim Anderson, chief financial officer for the Anchorage School District, said that there are some advantages to closing schools, as the district has many unfilled positions. At the beginning of the year, there were 12 school cafeterias without a manager and students had to eat brown bag or shelf-stable lunches.
“Because we’ll have a little bit fewer schools, there’s a much better chance that food is going to be better,” Anderson said.
Larger schools can also offer more consistent services to students, he said.
Meanwhile, the political ramifications surrounding the news of potentially closing six elementary schools in Alaska’s most populous city continued to emerge.
In a gubernatorial debate on Wednesday evening, Alaska education issues frequently came up among candidates.
Democrat and former state lawmaker Les Gara said during the debate that Alaska is in “the worst public education crisis in state history,” which he blamed on current Gov. Mike Dunleavy, a Republican.
“Schools are closing. We can’t keep teachers. Teachers are leaving after two years. And students are the ones that bear the brunt of lost opportunity,” Gara said.
Dunleavy shot back that he worked in Alaska education for many years, and pointed to the enrollment decline in Anchorage schools.
“I’d be more than happy to sit down with a number of these school districts — the Anchorage School District — and sit down with them and have a discussion as to why they are short on their budgets,” Dunleavy said. “Do they still have a school district that was geared for thousands of more students? You know, there’s a number of things we can take a look at, but money is certainly something that they’ve gotten this year.”
Administrators acknowledge there are fewer students in Anchorage schools — one of the multiple reasons they’ve recommended closing schools. But they also blame budget troubles, which districts statewide are contending with right now, on two main issues: State funds for education have only risen $30 per student since 2016, while inflation has pushed the cost to educate students well above that. And while pandemic emergency funds from the federal government have helped soften the blow for years, many of those funds have expired, leaving budget gaps for the next school year.
That’s led to tough, painful choices, officials say, including the potential closure of schools, like those listed by Anchorage School District administrators Tuesday.
For community members, sadness and questions linger. The school board must decide what to do in December.
Messick, the Northwood parent, said she and her neighbors are concerned about what happens next: Will the playground stay? Where will Northwood’s preschool students go? Where will the teachers go? Will the building be abandoned?
“What’s gonna happen to this area?” Messick asked.
And the school has important physical memories too. There’s a garden at Northwood that memorializes a student who passed away.
“My son was close with that student,” she said. “And they’re able to plant flowers and keep memories alive.”