We in Anchorage have not faced the possibility of school closures in a long time. We may soon.
From statehood through the pipeline boom, Anchorage grew quickly. After the economic downturn in the 1980s, for about 22 years, we had slow but consistent growth in population and student numbers. From 1988-89 to 2010-11, the student enrollment in the Anchorage School District rose by 25 percent.
As a result, during this period, the Anchorage School District had a policy of replacing our older schools with complete school renewals, essentially a total rebuild. We assumed that our old schools would need replacing and new schools would need to be built.
The District has long had a good local process for deciding capital issues. It has lots of public input, a citizen committee, clear measurements of the condition of our schools, and a public vote on the bonds. Congress and the state Legislature decide their capital budgets in backrooms with little input, lots of political deals and no public vote.
Over the last five years, from 2010-11 to 2015-16, our student enrollment has declined by 2 percent. This decline has created a capacity issue; too many of our schools are not full. This is primarily true in our secondary, that is middle and high schools. We use about 94 percent of our elementary school space. But in our secondary schools, we are only using about 88 percent or about seven-eighths. In practical terms, if you lined up eight secondary schools, you could close one and still have the rest at 100 percent capacity.
A final element was added by the Alaska Legislature last year. For many years, the state helped local Alaska cities construct schools by paying 60-70 percent of the cost of school construction bonds. Last year, the Legislature suspended this program until at least 2020. This means that for at least five years, the cost to the taxpayers of building and repairing schools has essentially tripled.
These three changes -- declining enrollment, excess capacity in our schools and no bond reimbursement -- mean we have to face up to a key fiscal question: Does it make sense to keep rebuilding our schools as they age out when we have excess capacity in the district?
This issue came to a head last year when three schools were up for total rebuilds at a total cost of just under $100 million. This is in addition to the amount it takes just to maintain our existing schools. More school rebuilds were in the pipeline in future years. With excess capacity, it was clear that as least some of these projects did not make sense in the short term.
The Anchorage School Board and Anchorage School District have responded to this new reality in three concrete ways.
First, we have established clear policies on our target capacity and bond debt. We set a goal of between 90 percent and 100 percent average capacity usage in our schools and we passed a bond debt limit, similar to the municipality's tax cap, that limits our bond debt but grows with Anchorage.
Second, for the next five years, the district will concentrate on rebuilding the components or systems in our schools that need immediate replacing. Like Anchorage families, who in an economic downturn postpone purchasing a new house or a total home renovation and instead just fix the boiler or the roof, the district will be concentrating on key needs in our schools. We plan to continue this "roofs and boilers" strategy until 2020 and then reassess.
Third, the board has asked the district to conduct a complete study of school capacity and recommend solutions, including the possibility of school closures, boundary changes, moving programs or other changes. This element has gotten the most public attention.
School closures can save taxpayers tremendous amounts of money by avoiding expensive school rebuilds and creating operational efficiencies. But there are significant costs too. Closing a neighborhood school and busing students is disruptive and costly. The Alaska Legislature pays less per student to the district for kids in a larger school than a smaller one, thereby discouraging school consolidation and taking away much of the savings of operational efficiencies. These are just the monetary costs.
More importantly, there is the educational cost of disrupting established quality programs and the human cost on families and neighborhoods of losing a school. Ever since I forced this discussion on to the board agenda, I have met with concerned parents and teachers who have eloquently expressed this cost to me. Some were angry, although all were polite.
I get it. I am a proud graduate of the local schools and so are my two children, in high school now.
But we simply cannot put our head in the sand and ignore the fiscal reality of the city and the state. We are going to have an open and honest discussion of the difficult questions of school closures and boundary changes. We are going to propose sustainable fiscal solutions based on good data.
I urge you to reach out to the board at School_Board@asdk12.org or me specifically at Eric_Croft@asdk12.org to express your views on this matter.
Eric Croft is a member of the Anchorage School Board and a candidate for the Anchorage Assembly. He also is a graduate of Central Middle School and West High School in Anchorage.
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