Anchorage School Board members on Monday finalized a set of budget priorities that includes several recommended cuts and changes to help alleviate a projected $48 million budget deficit for the coming fiscal year.
Members agreed to the closure of just one school — Abbott Loop Elementary — and pulled back from closing the five additional Anchorage elementary schools the district initially recommended for closure earlier this year.
In a 6-1 vote on Monday night, members approved the school board’s budget priorities, outlined in a memo to the administration providing a series of options designed to help close the budget shortfall.
For months, the board and district have grappled with what officials had projected to be a $68 million budget deficit — caused by a mix of inflation, a drop-off of federal pandemic funds and flat education funding from the state. After more recent calculations, that shortfall narrowed by $20 million, with a $48 million deficit remaining.
Instead of closing six schools, the board favored using a mix of district savings and other cuts after reaching a consensus on the singular school closure during a recent work session. The closure of Abbott Loop will save the district $974,000 per year for the first two years after it shutters, according to the memo.
Anchorage School Board members wrestled over their decision to green-light Abbott Loop’s closure in a lengthy discussion before voting.
“It’s truly heart-wrenching that we have to make all these cuts,” member Dora Wilson said.
Members largely agreed that, in light of the cost savings and with more budget trouble almost certainly ahead for the district, Abbott Loop’s closure would have likely been inevitable in the next few years — and that more school closures are sure to follow.
Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s recently proposed budget does not include an increase to the per-student funding the district relies on, Board President Margo Bellamy noted.
That’s compounded by a decline in student enrollment, which the district projects will continue. As student enrollment drops, so does funding. Bellamy said the board will again face a deficit next year.
“Even if we get to $48 million, we have lost 5,000 students,” Bellamy said. “They are not all going to come back.”
“We will be closing schools. We’re going to be right back here next year,” she said.
In addition to the school closure, the board on Monday voted to pursue several other strategies to close the budget gap. That includes using $28.34 million in one-time funds from district savings to knock out the biggest chunk.
Members voted in favor of raising the pupil-to-teacher ratio by one student to save $7.1 million. That won’t necessarily increase class sizes across the board, but rather accounts for existing staff vacancies.
Other options listed include 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 time frame.
Monday’s approved memo acts as the board’s official guidance to the district, relaying its priorities and allowing the district to work toward a budget within that framework. It is not a finalization of cuts and changes — that happens when the board passes a preliminary budget in February.
But a school closure and the move of sixth grade to middle school “requires many months of determining logistics and other operational considerations,” superintendent Jharrett Bryantt said.
That’s why the administration asked the board to make those decisions on Monday and provide that guidance, he said.
The board’s approved priorities and cuts only cover about $40 million of the total deficit.
Jim Anderson, the district’s chief financial officer, said the administration will be looking for other possible ways to slim down the deficit as it drafts a budget in January.
The school district and a hired consultant in October recommended closing six elementary schools across Anchorage. After a series of emotional town halls, a lot of public testimony and continued budget discussions, board members agreed only on the potential closure of Abbott Loop Elementary.
Abbott Loop and four of the five other elementary schools the districted had considered closing are all Title I schools. That means many students come from lower-income families and qualify for free and reduced lunch.
The board debated whether to postpone Abbott Loop’s closure for another year, and member Pat Higgins pushed to nix the closure entirely, though members ultimately decided to move forward.
During public testimony before the board’s vote, many educators and advocates in support of keeping open the neighborhood schools spoke about resounding impacts experienced by all six schools and their communities.
“I’m ... I’m going to cry,” Dana Kane, a teacher at Abbott Loop, said as she began her testimony. “We understand there’s a budget crisis. But we’re heartbroken. Our students are heartbroken. Our parents are heartbroken. Our staff is heartbroken, because we built those relationships. We are a family, we’re a community.“
Most students at Abbott Loop depend on the school for breakfast and lunch, she said.
“I have 18 students currently, and about 16 of those 18 students regularly eat breakfast. What’s going to happen to them? Because Title 1 funds don’t follow the student,” Kane said. “We have different languages in our school. English is not the first language. They’ve never had to fill out that paperwork. Who is going to hold their hand and help them fill out that paperwork so they don’t miss a meal?”
Joel Potter, who chairs the philosophy department at the University of Alaska Anchorage and has advocated to keep the neighborhood schools open, told members that the school district should reevaluate its approach. An equity study should have been conducted prior to the superintendent’s public endorsement of six school closures, he said.
“It would have shown that on the whole the plan favored well-off students at charters, at the expense of economically disadvantaged students and their families,” he said.
Potter called for the district to perform an equity study on the closure of any school it may consider next, including Abbott Loop; to make publicly available a complete breakdown of budget savings that would be achieved over the following five years; and a board resolution requiring the district to provide an annual review for at least five years of the success or failure of the specific closure, academically and relative to budget savings projected by the district.
“Damage has already been done to six schools in their communities. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a drop in enrollment at the schools, as parents are still uncertain -- uncertain about what will happen,” Potter said. “Because of these missteps over two months, the district needs to rebuild trust. The first way to do this is to make it absolutely clear to staff and parents that their schools are off the closure list.”
Before voting, the board removed from its guidance one option to use up to $8 million from its unspent school bond debt reimbursement money from the state. The district could have used that money to cover any remaining gap, Bryantt said.
That means the board and district will have to decide how to make up the remaining $8 million before March, when it must present the Anchorage Assembly with a balanced budget.
The school board will continue to face tough decisions without major increases to state funding, other income streams and student enrollment, board members acknowledged.
“The reality is, we’re moving a few pennies around, when the reality is we don’t have enough pennies make a dollar,” board member Kelly Lessens said. “And until something changes for our revenue streams, all seven of us are going to have to make cuts that may well go deeply against what we hold dear.”
The district has $37.7 million remaining from the school bond debt reimbursement — funds that the board chose not to direct toward the budget shortfall. On Monday, the board instead voted to set aside that money for the district’s capital projects fund. It intends to allocate the money toward future large-scale capital projects that prioritize student, staff and community safety and security.
The district has been facing pressure from a contingent of the community calling for that pot of money to go toward a rebuild of Inlet View Elementary. The Inlet View project was part of this year’s failed school bond.