Jharrett Bryantt stepped into the superintendent role for the Anchorage School District at the start of the school year. Bryantt, who came from the Houston Independent School District in Texas, had never been head of a school district before and was immediately met with challenges.
The school district grappled with a monthslong shortage of bus drivers that left thousands of students without a way to school. In late fall, administrators proposed shuttering six neighborhood elementary schools, before the school board ultimately opted to close just one. The district also struggled to make ends meet, amid inflationary pressures and flat state funds.
In an interview this week, Bryantt reflected on the school year, the district’s financial picture and what he foresees for the next school year.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
ADN: The Alaska Legislature just passed the largest increase to per-student public education funding in years. How does that change next year, financially, and the fiscal picture for the district?
Bryantt: The Legislature came together and they voted to invest in education. And I think that’s exciting. My understanding is, as of (Monday) morning, it was still in the governor’s office ... But assuming that he signs off on it as-is, it would result in what’s equivalent to a $680 Base Student Allocation increase.
But the really fine point that I want the community to know is that it’s not a permanent increase. It’s not something that’s guaranteed. And it’s ultimately not going to solve the structural issues that have put ASD and other districts in deficits. ...
Let’s recall our bus transportation crisis that we had earlier this year. How did we get out of it? I partnered with the unions to raise the wages by 25% for bus drivers. But we didn’t get more funding for the bus drivers. So I had to divert funds that could have gone into the classroom, and invested them in our bus drivers. Because ultimately, if your children can’t get to school, they can’t learn. So we were in somewhat of a crisis situation.
We’ve had similar issues around student nutrition positions. So we’ve invested in those wages across all of our bargaining groups.
As it relates to the budget, ASD will be in a structural deficit going into FY25. So what the governor is signing off on are one-time funds that will come to ASD. ASD has already passed a balanced budget.
What that means is it’s going to be quite a robust conversation at the board level as to whether or not there’s a case to strategically use those one-time funds for projects that are aligned to goals and guardrails. But there’s another case to be made that perhaps we should save those funds, because should the state not invest in education going into the next latest legislative session, we’ll be in a deficit close to $90 million.
ADN: Something that was probably one of the biggest conversations during the budget process this past year was school closures. Is that something that district is going to continue recommending?
Bryantt: One thing that I’ve reflected on and I believe to be true is that the school closure conversation is a separate conversation from the budget process. They’re related, in the fact that there are modest savings from closing a school. But the process of closing a school is actually related to infrastructure, and the fact that the district is serving thousands of fewer students than it did in previous years.
The cost of operating at full capacity has risen. And there is a conversation to be had that perhaps we have too many school buildings. I don’t anticipate that will be an immediate focus going into the next school year. But it is something that will come up again, but not necessarily next year. What I’ve learned is that a school closure needs to be a community-wide conversation. And I think we can even look into how we collect that community input as to whether or not we’re ready to make a very painful choice in closing a school.
ADN: The governor recently tried to push for several “parental rights” bills. What did you think of those? What was your stance on them as you watched the process play out in the Legislature?
Bryantt: I am a true believer in local control and local governance. And school districts have the ability to make decisions in a way that makes sense for their community. I personally view that as a school board-level conversation less than a state-level conversation, but it’s certainly the will of the Legislature or governor to discuss and deliberate upon whatever bill that they would like to deliberate on. But in the absence of legislation at the state level, I think the school board can handle that.
ADN: How many times have you talked to the governor this year?
Bryantt: We’ve been at several bill signings and I had a one-on-one conversation with him in the middle of the legislative session.
ADN: What were those conversations like?
Bryantt: He is a supporter of education, he’s an educator. So we had a lot to discuss around that and his passion. I think that it was a great conversation. I think that we just view policy in different ways on certain issues. And we probably do think similarly on other issues. He’s a real person just like the rest of us. But I know that he’s committed to doing what’s right for Alaska, I just have my own theories for what we need to do what’s right for Alaska. And that’s OK, that’s democracy.
ADN: What are some of the places where you feel like you two diverge?
Bryantt: I want to invest in a prosperous Alaska. I want to focus on the economy. I want to figure out how we figure out our workforce challenges. I envision that Alaska can be the destination state where you come here to live and play, but you also are staying here for the long-term.
I think that a great state is defined by great schools and great neighborhoods. And I think that our investment should always keep that in mind, that unless you’re investing in strong schools, and great and safe neighborhoods, you’re not going to bring in the people that you need to have a prosperous state.
I think he and I are both very aware of the fact that there is outmigration in Alaska, they’re going to other places where perhaps they perceive that there’s more opportunity or more jobs or a better chance at a long future or honorable retirement.
But I would want to double down all of my financial resources to those two things, the schools and the neighborhoods. That way, Alaska’s reputation is not one where you Google an “Alaska school district” and all of the articles are around school closures and flat funding. But instead, it can be a Google search on the school district where it’s about vital schools, amazing programs, academic outcomes, neighborhoods that are bustling and thriving. That’s where I would put my money. And I feel sometimes at the state level, we can become distracted and invest funds in areas that are not that.
ADN: What is the busing situation looking like for the fall?
Bryantt: Last fall, we had a bus transportation crisis. And it was the result of dozens of bus drivers resigning from their positions in the summer. And our working theory is that many of them went to the tourism industry. We have a wonderful summer here in Alaska. What that also means is that there’s a lot of tourism buses, and many of these companies offer pretty competitive bonuses to individuals to drive the bus. So we got through that. How did we get through it — we raised the wages by 25%, to be more competitive, and we also implemented a recruitment-retention incentive to help our drivers to retain our workforce. That was a step in the right direction.
But as we pivot into next school year, we need to figure out how to be proactive and successfully coexist with the tourism industry, because they’re not going away. In fact, last summer, I believe we had ships going out until October. Unless we start school in October — which I am not proposing or advocating for — we have to figure out how to be proactive.
What does that look like now? No. 1, the wages are still increased, but No. 2, we were more proactive in asking our drivers, “What are your intentions for next year?” Unlike ever before, we’re having conversations with individual bus drivers in April and May, asking them their intent to return for the next school year.
The positive thing is the 140-plus bus drivers have committed to being Team ASD on the first day of school. The magic number is 208. That means that there’s still work to be done, we need to aggressively recruit and retain our bus drivers so that they are Team ASD going into the summer. Another thing that we’ve implemented is providing a summer job to all interested bus drivers. So we’re eliminating the need for a bus driver to have another employer in the summer because they can stay right here in ASD, and I think that’ll help us a lot.
ADN: What were some highlights as you look back on the year?
Bryantt: It’s been a great year. You know, personally, I feel I’ve grown a lot, I’ve learned a lot. It’s very humbling to be in this seat. There’s certainly a lot of responsibility and a lot of visibility too ... I moved here by myself. And it’s kind of a scary prospect to move across the country and leave everyone and everything behind. But I found community, I found friends, I figured out how to be productive member of this amazing community. So on a personal note, I feel that it’s been a great year.
On a professional note, we’ve had challenges. And I think all these challenges have not just made me stronger, it’s made our community stronger. We got through it. We got through the bus crisis. We got through snowpocalypse. We’ve gotten through an initial round of very challenging conversations around school closures in our budget solutions planning process. ...
I’ve really enjoyed the opportunity to shake the hands of thousands of seniors at all of our graduations and just hearing about the exciting things that they’ll be embarking on after high school, but it really awakened to me that there’s so much that we can do and should do for our kiddos, well before they get to high school. I feel an urgency to do whatever I can to help ASD succeed when it comes to student outcomes and academics. And that work needs to begin for early students, it needs to continue to occur throughout middle school, high school and beyond.
So even though it was invigorating to send our seniors off, the urgency is higher than ever before, to invest our resources wisely so that way our students can succeed. We’ll see what happens with the budget in Juneau, I hope that it gets signed off as-is. But that still means we have difficult conversations ahead when it comes to the district’s finances. And in many ways, we’ll have to do more with less.