School closures are still on the table for the Anchorage School District, but likely not until the end of the 2024-25 school year, according to district officials.
Last fall, the district abruptly recommended closing six neighborhood elementary schools, citing both a budget deficit of around $68 million and continually dropping enrollment. But after outcry from families, teachers and others in the school communities, the Anchorage School Board voted to close only one elementary school, Abbott Loop.
This year, district officials plan to ask for input from families and members of the public about what they think the criteria should be for deciding which schools to close.
The longer timeline will also give the administration a chance to better explain how and why some schools might be good candidates for closure, said Jim Anderson, chief operating officer with the district.
“I think the lesson learned was, we need the community to have more time to understand why you would even look at closing or consolidating schools,” Anderson said. “And we need the community to have more time to think about and provide feedback as to what they would prioritize.”
That will happen through a series of surveys in the fall, and public town hall meetings in the winter and spring, Anderson said. The earliest any school would be slated to close would be the end of next school year, he said.
The Anchorage School Board would have to vote to approve any school the district recommends for closure.
Unlike last year, conversations around school closures are much less about balancing a budget deficit, even though the district is again facing a substantial shortfall, said Superintendent Jharrett Bryantt.
“You don’t save a lot of money in the big picture from closing a building,” he said, adding that in Alaska, school districts do not own the land that the schools are on so there’s no influx in cash when a school closes.
According to Bryantt and Anderson, what’s driving the continued to need to consolidate schools was a drop in student enrollment in recent years, which was linked to people leaving the state and a declining birth rate.
Over the last 10 years, the district had a net loss of about 5,000 students, which is being felt especially at the elementary level, according to Anderson.
“We’re looking at a 10-year outlook, where ASD is serving way fewer students than we have in the past,” Bryantt said. “And for that reason, we need to think about consolidating our footprint.”
“The sense of urgency for developing a strategic plan is the same as it was last year,” Anderson said. “What’s changed is the recognition that the community needs more to time to absorb at provide input before we make recommendations.”
Last year, the potential school closures were announced just ahead of the November election, making it an issue in the gubernatorial race, and ahead of a legislative session during which lawmakers wrestled over increasing the per-student funding formula, which had been flat for years.
Bryantt said the timing of last year’s announcement was not politically timed.
“Closing a school should never be political, it really does need to be districts trying to turn every stone to figure out what is our path to get out of the deficit,” he said.
“One can speculate all they want about the timing. For us, we’re just really dedicated to figuring out what it’s going to take to educate our kids, given the funding that that we will conceivably have,” he said.
Though no specific schools are under special consideration for closure yet, one of the factors the district is currently looking at is enrollment size, and the dozen or so schools that are at less than 65% capacity, Anderson said. He said cost was just one of the reasons capacity matters.
“We have budget issues, and we work those year-round. But our core mission is to educate children. So when you consolidate these really under-capacity schools and make larger schools, it’s more about efficient academic instruction than it is the dollars you save,” he said.
With smaller schools, special programs staff like nurses, coaches, counselors and speech pathologists are spread thin and transported across several schools, Anderson said.
Parents and community members will receive the surveys beginning in October, and a link will also be posted on the district’s website in a few weeks, Anderson said. The surveys will be available through January. Town hall meetings will be scheduled February through April.
“Then in May, we’ll talk to the school board and say, ‘OK, the community has spoken. And this is what they want,’ ” he said.
Next fall, the administration intends to present a “multi-year plan” to the school board that would name specific schools for possible closure.