The Anchorage School District has assigned a new dollar amount — $48 million — to the deficit it’s facing next year, and throughout the week, school board members and the district have inched closer to potentially filling in that gap.
While a $48 million deficit is less than the original projection of $68 million, the district and Anchorage School Board continue to face difficult choices as they work toward developing and passing a balanced budget over the next two months.
Officials could close the hole through various measures, including school closures, increasing class sizes, program eliminations and administrative cuts.
At a Saturday work session, where Anchorage School Board members stood on some of those options starting coming into focus. They reached consensus on a few measures, including using district savings to help pay down the deficit and avoiding many of the recommended school closures, which they’re likely to discuss further at a board meeting later this month.
The size of the projected deficit shrank due to several factors. District revenue increased; the Municipality of Anchorage said it would cover the cost of school resource officers; staff vacancies rose; and the district now anticipates using some additional federal funds, said Andy Ratliff, the district’s senior director of management and budget.
More precise enrollment figures were also released, showing higher-than-expected enrollment — which translates to additional school funding because the district receives much of its funds on a per-student basis, Ratliff said.
Per-student funding sits at the center of much of the upcoming deficit. Known as the Base Student Allocation, the figure hasn’t been raised except for a $30 increase, since 2017. That’s meant despite rising inflation, school districts statewide have been receiving flat funds from the state for years.
School board budget perspectives
Anchorage School Board members fleshed out budget priorities Saturday through an exercise in which they essentially built mock budgets using the district’s recommended cuts and closures, along with a few board-submitted “wild cards,” in an attempt to get to zero.
Options included each of the recommended school closures, as well as changes to class sizes. They also included potentially moving sixth grade to middle school; using some or all of the $37.7 million in remaining school bond debt reimbursement from the Alaska Legislature; administrative cuts; million from reducing the gifted program, IGNITE; and the fees for renting The Dome for school sports.
Officials also added the option to use some of the district’s savings, which is known as its fund balance. Those savings come from unspent funds, like teacher vacancies, Ratliff said.
The school board hasn’t yet settled on how to use the remaining $37.7 million available in school bond debt reimbursement money, again postponing a decision on the matter at its Monday meeting.
There’s community pressure regarding how to spend that money. Some want the funds to go toward a rebuild of Inlet View Elementary, which was part of a failed bond proposal earlier this year, while others want it used to pay down the deficit. On Saturday, school board members proposed using various amounts of that money — including none of it — in their mock budgets.
Board members on Saturday agreed on a few aspects of the budget, including reducing the fund balance to about 8%, using around $28.3 million in savings.
They also appeared to come to some consensus regarding school closures, leaning toward the potential closure of only Abbott Loop Elementary while keeping open the other five elementary schools that the Anchorage School District had recommended closing.
The board is expected to vote Dec. 19 on a memo that combines many of the items that members expressed support for at the Saturday work session. It will likely include the Abbott Loop Elementary closure, the use of district savings, potentially raising the pupil-to-teacher ratio by one student, plus cuts to a school district virtual learning program.
The vote would help the district administration build a budget book to present to the board for their approval and changes.
How much school closures would save, and eventually lose
Earlier in the week, the Anchorage School District outlined how much money it would initially save by closing six elementary schools — and eventually, how much the district would begin to lose as a result of those closures.
In October, officials outlined a plan to close six neighborhood schools across Anchorage. Five of the six are Title I schools, which means a majority of their students come from low-income households. The announcements rippled through both the individual communities and the political world, arriving just weeks before Election Day, and spurring concern and heartbreak among the schools’ neighbors and families.
Savings from closing the schools will be highest over the next two years, when students who attend the smaller schools head to larger ones. That’s because under the Alaska’s school funding formula, students at smaller schools get more money from the state, and the state continues funding those students at that same rate even if a district closes the smaller school for a number of years. Then, the funds begin to taper off over time.
According to district chief financial officer Jim Anderson, although school closures result in fewer state funds, additional savings also come from reducing certain staff positions like principals, nurses and librarians.
But the district still has to pay utilities and other costs if they keep the buildings for district use. Early childhood education centers have been proposed at two of the schools recommended for closure. In other cases, a charter school can use the building and would take on those maintenance and utility costs.
In the first year, savings from elementary school closures would vary widely, with Nunaka Valley Elementary’s closure saving the district some $406,000 and Abbott Loop Elementary’s closure saving roughly $974,155, according to district estimates presented this week.
In total, the district has estimated it would save about $4.1 million for each of the first two years the schools close, which then drops over time to $2.5 million saved in year three and just under a million dollars saved in year four. But by year five, the district will have a $583,000 deficit from closing the six schools.
Nunaka Valley resident Joel Potter, who chairs the philosophy department at the University of Alaska Anchorage and is an advocate of keeping the neighborhood schools open, noted that the savings identified by the district may not come through — a charter school could decide not to rent the closed school buildings, or transportation costs for students to the new schools could change.
“The strategy here is basically no different than use of one-time funding for a couple of years that then goes away,” Potter said. “But unlike other types of one-time funding, like the use of the school bond debt reimbursement, there are significant consequences for kids.”
Anderson, with the district, said that the school closure plan “buys time, four to five years, for the Legislature to figure out how to right-size education funding.”
Meanwhile, the district is also contending with dropping enrollment, which is projected to continue. So, the district has said the current school closure recommendations are only a first phase, with more phases expected in the future.
During Saturday’s work session, board members appeared to agree on closing just one of the six schools, Abbott Loop Elementary. It’s the only school building among the recommended closures that doesn’t have a repurpose plan. Under district plans, a charter school or preschool might move into the other schools on the list.
The school district would with work the Municipality of Anchorage, which owns the property and would ultimately decide whether to demolish, repair or rebuild the building.
Education funding and the Legislature
It’s a hypothetical question, but Anderson, with the district, said that even if they had additional funds, they’d probably still recommend closing some schools to more efficiently use the money available. Anderson said he doesn’t see a chance that the Alaska Legislature could quickly draft and pass a major funding bill before the district needs to pass its budget.
“Would we have closed six schools, or recommended six schools, if we had plenty of money? Probably not. It probably would have been a smaller number, and we would have done it over a period of several years, or at least we would have recommended it just because of the angst in the community, and how difficult it is to close even one school,” Anderson said. “But with a huge deficit, and 5,000 less kids, that probably did prompt us to pick more schools in the first year.”
State Sen. Bill Wielechowski, a Democrat who represents an Anchorage district that includes two schools recommended for closure, Wonder Park and Nunaka Valley, said his constituents are concerned.
“From what I’ve seen, the savings doesn’t seem to be enough to make a significant impact on the deficit,” he said.
Wielechowski said he thinks there’s a strong chance the Legislature will increase education funding. He said that a decision over school closures would be better left until the legislative session starts in January and lawmakers debate over per-student funding.
The district’s budget issues could have been avoided if the Legislature had kept per-student funding on pace with inflation. But the issue is compounded by the fact that the Legislature doesn’t come out with its budget until May or later, and school districts need to make their decisions much earlier in the year.
Wielechowski said he’d like to see the legislature cordon off education funding and have it completed by a certain date, but said that would be challenging.
“I would hope that we could come to some really consensus on education to get something out quickly,” he said.
Class size increases
The district could potentially save money by changing what’s known as the pupil-to-teacher ratio. As that ratio increases, the number of teachers goes down. But it’s not a one-to-one comparison to class size, since the ratio takes into account other school staff like nurses and counselors, who are counted as “teachers” in the calculation, said Corey Aist, president of the district’s teachers union, the Anchorage Education Association.
If a the ratio of pupils to teachers is 24, and there are other non-classroom staff at the school, like a school psychologist, class sizes could ultimately be as high as 27 or 28 students in a class, he said.
Student outcomes are better when class sizes are smaller, he said.
“It allows the educator, the teacher to focus more on each individual student to individualize instruction, to differentiate activities, to meet the needs of those students so that they can achieve better results,” Aist said.
On Saturday, board members discussed how much they might raise that ratio by, and several members expressed support for increasing the ratio by one student. Board member Kelly Lessens noted that the ratio is “highly elastic,” and if the state were to eventually increase the Base Student Allocation, then they could potentially retract the increase in the spring.
After the work session, Aist said his take on the board’s position regarding the pupil-to-teacher ratio was that it would essentially just eliminate jobs that are already unfilled.
“I don’t think increasing the (pupil-to-teacher ratio) by one will have a huge effect on class sizes,” Aist said. “But it also won’t help reduce class sizes by trying to hire those teachers, those unfilled positions.”