The Anchorage School Board unanimously passed the school district's 2015-16 budget Thursday, restoring team planning time for middle school elective teachers and adding funding for new language programs.
In total, the additions cost $2.15 million, which the board subtracted from the $3.3 million set aside for classroom technology upgrades in the Anchorage School District's proposed budget for next school year.
Board member Tam Agosti-Gisler said when faced with the decision of a new computer or a new teacher, "I'm going to choose the teacher every time."
The budget adds funding for 63 new teacher positions, made possible in part by money that will go unspent this school year.
In the fall, the district said it had not hired as many teachers as it expected. It also hired more young teachers than planned. As a result, it projected that by the end of the school year it would spend roughly $22 million less than budgeted.
While the unspent money signified a larger hiring problem, it also gave the board some cushion for the district's 2015-16 budget. Board members previously voted to put $17 million of district reserves -- a pool of funds built up by the unspent dollars -- toward next school year, allowing it to shrink the anticipated budget gap and avoid teacher layoffs.
As a result, the budget passed Thursday provides a stark contrast to the budget passed this time last year, which included the elimination of hundreds of positions before the state Legislature and Anchorage Assembly allocated additional dollars toward education.
"I feel in a better place this time than I did last year when we were working on the budget," said board member Bettye Davis.
The 2015-16 budget still must go before the Anchorage Assembly in March. The district could lose about $12 million in one-time state funding if Gov. Bill Walker's proposed budget cuts stick. In short, the school board will likely revisit this budget.
The district's proposed budget had included funding for 21 new full-time classroom teachers and teaching assistants at charter schools and 22 new full-time classroom teachers at neighborhood schools. The board kept that intact and added an additional 20 full-time middle school teacher positions at a cost of $2 million in efforts to restore team planning time for elective teachers. Davis introduced the budget amendment.
Last year, the board approved a budget that eliminated the planning time as a cost-saving measure. Since then, middle school elective teachers have spoken out at board meetings about the inequity.
Dan Whitfield, a 33-year-old band teacher at Goldenview Middle School, said after Thursday's vote he was grateful.
"I have no doubt that this change will help us better serve our students and I am excited about the educational opportunities this presents for the future," he said.
ASD has said that it would take $2.4 million to restore the team planning period. Mark Foster, district chief financial officer, said Thursday, "we'll make it work."
Agosti-Gisler presented the second amendment that passed, which added $150,000 in funding to lay the groundwork, including development and community outreach, for a Chinese immersion program, a French foreign-language elementary program and a French immersion program. The money funds 1.5 "full-time equivalent" positions, or a part-time coordinator for each of the three programs. If there is interest, the programs could begin as early as fall 2016, she said.
"This is an effort to respond to our community," she said, though she added that if the district gets in a dire financial situation in the future, she would reconsider the budding programs.
The two budget additions trim the classroom technology upgrade budget for next school year down to about $1.15 million. The full $3.3 million would have replaced staff computers that were between five and 10 years old. Michael Graham, the district's chief academic officer, said Thursday the district would likely use the money remaining to replace the oldest computers first.
The district's total budget for the 2015-16 school year, as it stands, amounts to roughly $784.2 million in managed funds, about 2.3 percent more than the current school year's budget.