Education

As Anchorage School Board members weigh budget cuts, most proposed elementary school closures are looking unlikely this year

Klatt Elementary

Anchorage School Board members will vote Monday on a set of priorities amid a major budget shortfall, and the closure of five of six Anchorage elementary schools proposed by the district is looking less likely.

Board members are expected to vote on a memo that includes a series of options to help close a $48 million budget deficit. It’s not clear how each board member will vote, but at a work session last weekend they reached consensus on a few items.

Members have agreed to avoid most of the initially recommended school closures in this round, favoring instead to use a mix of district savings and other cuts.

The board and district have for months attempted to solve what was initially projected to be a $68 million budget deficitcaused by a mix of inflation, a drop-off of federal pandemic funds and flat education funding from the state. After recent calculations, a $48 million deficit remains, and how the board may approach getting to zero is starting to take shape.

The memo Monday includes using $28.34 million in district savings — something board members agreed to during the Dec. 10 work session.

It also includes the closure of only one of the six originally recommended elementary schools: Abbott Loop, which would save the district $974,000 per year for the first two years following its closure.

Anchorage School Board president Margo Bellamy called the board mostly taking school closures off the table a “profound statement.” But she said she expects the board will be back in a similar deficit position next year, given that Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s recently proposed budget, which will be considered by the Alaska Legislature, doesn’t include an increase to the per-student funding the district relies on.

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Members will also vote on raising the pupil-to-teacher ratio by one student, which won’t necessarily increase class sizes and instead account for existing staff vacancies and would save $7.1 million. The memo also includes the options of a $690,000 cut to a virtual learning program, $2.1 million in administrative cuts, $1 million in operations reductions and moving sixth grade to middle school in a phased timeframe.

The memo also lists the optional use of up to $8 million in school bond debt reimbursement, of which there is $37.7 million in unspent funds. The board has postponed a decision over how to spend those funds, and there’s community pressure to use the money toward a rebuild of Inlet View Elementary, a project that was part of this year’s failed school bond.

[After this year’s school bond failed, the Anchorage School Board is proposing a smaller one for 2023]

The memo also includes areas where there won’t be cuts, including no changes to the gifted program IGNITE, which had originally been recommended for a cut, as well as retaining rental of The Dome for spring sports practices.

The school district and a hired consultant recommended the board close six elementary schools across Anchorage in October. After a series of emotional town halls, a lot of public testimony and continued budget discussions, board members only agreed on the potential closure of Abbott Loop Elementary.

Jim Anderson, the district’s chief financial officer, said following the town halls, the board reset based on community priorities. The district’s job was to provide various budget options, and officials acknowledged they’d be difficult choices.

“We knew at the very least that we had identified six potentials,” Anderson said. “And we knew that there would be probably less than six school closures, but we didn’t know which ones.”

Abbott Loop was the only school of six that would not have been repurposed as a preschool or charter school, and its closure would save the district almost $1 million for each of the first two years. If it closes, the district would work with the municipality, which owns the property, on what to do with the building.

Beyond Abbott Loop, school board member Kelly Lessens said she doesn’t expect members to add more school closures or repurposing plans into next year’s budget.

Coronavirus, COVID-19, Pandemic, Abbott Loop Elementary School

And while Lessens said she doesn’t know how other board members feel, she’d like to end the district’s lease of its Education Center and potentially move some administration to Abbott Loop. She also said that if the district has to do more consolidation in the future, it “can pilot test best practices in that student relocation.”

“I’m aware that the disruption caused by moving students may have negative academic outcomes,” Lessens said. “And we could do our very best to focus on class sizes and other supports at the receiving school. So I think there’s an opportunity get it right, by focusing just on one school this year.”

Monday’s memo holds the board accountable, said Bellamy. It’s a way to give the district the best guidance they can and allow the district to work toward a budget within that framework. The memo only adds up to about $40 million, so the board will need to figure out where the rest of the $8 million will come from prior to February.

“The board will discuss and do whatever it chooses, there might be amendments to it, there might be more deeper discussion around each of the items in the memo,” said Bellamy. “So that’s up to the will of the board. In the end, I’m hoping that we will vote to give that guidance to the administration so that they can begin to build a preliminary budget.”

Board member Carl Jacobs said that each school closure should be approached deliberately.

[Worries brew about future of successful learning program at Eagle River school on closure list]

“Unlike increases to the pupil-teacher ratio, which can be adjusted to a certain degree of fluidity, campus closures involve a significant infrastructure change that won’t be easy to reverse in the short term,” Jacobs said.

Board member Andy Holleman said there have been several years of disrupted education, and the 2022-23 year has been one of the most normal in a while.

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“Telling a chunk of our students that their school is not going to be there in the fall is concerning. At the same time, we do have a responsibility to try to operate efficiently because it’s public dollars. And if we can run the district with 55 elementary schools instead of 65, we should be trying to take steps to do that,” he said.

In response to the governor’s proposed budget — which was released Thursday and did not include an increase to the Base Student Allocation, a per-student allocation that has remained largely flat since 2017 — Anchorage School District superintendent Jharrett Bryantt released a statement saying he was “disappointed.”

But Bryantt went on to say he was “very encouraged to learn (the governor) recognizes the inflationary pressure on our District, our families, and our communities and wants to work with us on sensible school funding solutions.”

Holleman said although the school board reached consensus about avoiding school closures this year, they still probably need to happen as enrollment continues to drop. There are various ways to go about that, he said. Staff, parents and administrators could be more involved, and there could be more of a plan to make sure there’s time to see how students are impacted individually. Holleman said the district and the consultant did a good job of looking at minimizing negative impacts to students, such as keeping whole neighborhoods of students together.

While Abbott Loop Elementary is the most likely to close, given the dollars the closure would save, Holleman said he still hopes that can be avoided.

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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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