Anchorage School District walks back plan to cut dedicated elementary art classes and health instructors

The Anchorage School District on Tuesday withdrew a proposal to cut dedicated elementary art classes and health instructors that drew significant outcry from parents and educators, including extensive public testimony this week.

The proposal — first presented earlier this month by school administrators as part of the district’s budget for the upcoming school year — would have replaced elementary school art with a new hybrid class that merged five subjects into a single hour: science, technology, engineering, art and math, or STEAM. Elementary health education also would have shifted to classroom teachers rather than being taught by dedicated health instructors. Additionally, dozens of elementary and art teachers would’ve had to reapply for different jobs.

Those changes are no longer on the table, partly as a result of community feedback, administrators said Tuesday night.

“I am no longer recommending (the proposal) be implemented next year, and I recommend that art and health education continue as it currently does,” Anchorage School District superintendent Jharrett Bryantt said during Tuesday night’s school board meeting.

Bryantt’s comments drew loud applause from a large crowd that filled nearly every seat in the room, many wearing red to signal their support of an increase to the Base Student Allocation, or BSA, the state’s per-pupil funding formula.

The district has repeatedly said that its current budget — which is requiring the district to make millions of dollars in proposed cuts to balance a nearly $100 million deficit — was a reflection of years of flat state education funding.

“It’s because of structural flatlining that we’re having to make these painful recommendations to the school board for their consideration,” Bryantt said Tuesday.


However, the STEAM proposal would have been cost-neutral by replacing current art and health teachers with an equal number of STEAM instructors.

Many who spoke during nearly three hours of public testimony Tuesday night described the value they believe dedicated art and health offers students, and expressed concern that this was not the first time the administrator had proposed cuts to the arts.

“Art is culture. Art is identity. Art creates self-awareness, art is an amazing tool for (social and emotional learning), for building community, for processing trauma, for understanding the history and cultures of the world,” said Scott McDonald, an art teacher at Rogers Park and Airport Heights elementary schools.

Bryantt said his decision to withdraw the STEAM proposal was the result of feedback he and the district received and a desire to make sure there was more time for community input before implementing such a major change.

“The STEAM proposal was intended to be one possible way to continue innovating to continue to repurpose resources so that we can improve student learning, despite a financial shortfall,” Bryantt said. “But what we realized is that such a big change does require more community input and engagement.”

“I want to thank the board, people in this room and in the community for weighing in,” Bryantt added.

The STEAM class would have also replaced the popular IGNITE program, which as of Tuesday night remained on the chopping block as part of the district’s proposed cuts.

When they originally proposed STEAM, district administrators said their goal was to preserve some of the creative learning opportunities IGNITE provided to students while also saving money.

IGNITE, which stands for Including Gifted Needs in Today’s Education, is a beloved program for high-performing elementary students. The district has proposed cutting it to save money in previous years as well, each time garnering hours of public testimony in favor of the program.

The district’s proposal to cut 18 out of 20 IGNITE instructors — effectively ending the program — drew a large amount of public testimony Tuesday night from students, teachers and parents. The cuts would save the district about $2.2 million.

Testifiers passionately described the value of having a program that engages some of the district’s brightest elementary students.

“My classroom teachers don’t have enough time to challenge me because everyone is on a different level. We learn a lot of things in life, like having a growth mindset,” said ASD third grader Aria Raidmae, who testified at Tuesday’s meeting in favor of IGNITE. “If IGNITE is taken away, then I would lose my favorite part of the week.”

“IGNITE is my special place where I can learn and practice being an engineer. I don’t want to lose that,” added Kincaid Elementary School second grader Grayson Rasmussen.

The program “gives me the change to explore the world around me, and learn things I wouldn’t have learned in class. It challenges me, and I’m begging for you not to get rid of it or combine it with other subjects,” said Madison Shrein.

In addition to the IGNITE changes, other proposed measures include: eliminating nearly 100 staff positions, including 36 full-time teachers, as a result of an increase to the pupil-teacher ratio; increasing class sizes for all students in the fourth grade and older; increasing activity and rental fees; reducing summer school options; cutting back on school supplies purchases; and spending down nearly all of the district’s rainy-day savings account.

The school board is set to vote on the overall budget at its meeting Tuesday, Feb. 27. The board was originally set to vote on Feb. 20, but school officials said last week the vote was delayed to allow more time for public comment.

In closing comments Tuesday night, board members thanked the community for showing up in support of education, and echoed their concerns about the budget they will be voting on next week.


“The state is failing public education right now,” said board member Pat Higgins. “All I can do is make the commitment that I’m not going to deviate from that goal of doing what I think is best for kids, and that is going to be a tough decision next week.”

Joshua Pak, the board’s student representative, said that a recent student government conversation centered around adding tactile strips for sidewalks that could help visually impaired students.

“We were debating whether or not we should even ask the district for that because funding’s so short, and students have now come to the realization that maybe the things that we think are so important may not be in the top of the priorities in the district.”

“None of this is easy,” said board president Margo Bellamy, who expressed frustration with legislators and Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy for what she described as a continued lack of meaningful investment in public education.

“The reality now is unlike anything I’ve seen before, and I’ve seen some good times and some bad times,” she said. “I don’t know what words to use, I don’t know what tears to shed to get our legislators and our governor to understand education.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly quoted art teacher Scott McDonald, who was referencing art as a tool for social and emotional learning, not English language learners.

Annie Berman

Annie Berman is a reporter covering health care, education and general assignments for the Anchorage Daily News. She previously reported for Mission Local and KQED in San Francisco before joining ADN in 2020. Contact her at