Anchorage schools have a problem, not a surplus

Recent reports make it appear that the Anchorage School District has miraculously found $22 million in new money.

This is not true. We did not find a pot of gold.

Instead, Superintendent Ed Graff directed his financial team to scrub the numbers early in our school year to analyze spending levels and make predictions for the coming year, all the way out to June 2015.

The preliminary results confirmed what ASD leadership had suspected; that we are losing our most experienced teachers and having increasing difficulty filling key positions, particularly special education teachers, information technology professionals, and certain specialized maintenance workers. We expect and budget for a certain attrition rate and vacancy factor. However, in September and October these were higher than normal and we are concerned it will continue throughout the coming year.

There are a number of reasons for this, but a key one is when you fire much of your staff in February and hire some of them back in June -- if the Legislature appropriates new money -- then many of your best employees get tired of that process and move to another job.

This is not good news, like a surplus. This is bad news.

And what is the problem?


Let's use a real-world business example -- mine. I own and run a small law firm with two lawyers and three paralegals. Like most businesses, the bosses get the credit but the employees make the organization really work. Recently, one of these fantastic employees got tired of the Alaska winters and announced she was moving to Arizona. Let's say her total salary and benefits total $100,000.

Does anyone think I have a $100,000 surplus?

First of all, I don't have any more money in the bank the day after she quits than the day before. No pot of gold. No new money. Just a prediction for future savings at the end of the year if I don't hire anyone to replace her.

If I cannot replace the great employee I lost, what I really have is a $100,000 problem doing my work over the next year. I have a $100,000 gap in my ability to get good results for my customers.

That is the situation ASD has right now. We are not sitting on a newly discovered $22 million windfall. Instead, we are noticing the beginning of a disturbing trend: Our most experienced teachers are leaving and, in certain specialty areas, we are not competitive in hiring teachers and staff.

There are at least three smaller points and one big question.

First, this is not new cash reserves. ASD does keep an appropriate 8 to 10 percent reserve, mandated by state law and board policy. One of the reasons the municipality has such a good, AAA bond rating is ASD's consistent and prudent reserve policy. But, the issue we are talking about is future predicted savings, not new reserves.

Second, on the plus side, we have also identified some real potential future savings in reduced fuel costs and better control of supply usage. These are much smaller than the retention and vacancy issues, but significant.

Third, we were not late to identify an old problem, as some have suggested. Instead, we were early to spot a future trend and try to get ahead of it. This brings us to the big question.

Should ASD spend all of its projected savings?

On the face of it, the answer seems to be yes; we could put the money to good use for our children. But, as most all of you know by now, the fact that the state does not inflation-proof the funding formula means that every year ASD has to cut about $22 million just to keep its head above water. So, if we used these projected savings to hire new teachers or other staff, we would likely just have to fire them next year.

We want to hear your views. You can reach all members of the school board at SchoolBoard@asdk12.org.

Eric Croft is a proud parent, an aspiring mountaineer, and occasional attorney, who celebrated 21 years with his lovely wife this August. He was elected school board president in May.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com