Anchorage School Board delays rebuilding middle schools using bonds so it can study school closures

After a flurry of amendments and debate Thursday, the Anchorage School Board passed a $49.3 million bond package for April's municipal ballot, which had nearly all proposed funding for upgrades to Central Middle School stripped out.

School board member Eric Croft, who introduced the amendment to remove $17 million for seismic and energy upgrades to the middle school, said that deferring the projects gave the community time to decide if it wanted the school district to close schools.

"We are taking care of what we have," Croft said. "We are doing the highest-priority, needed projects in each one of our schools and not rebuilding anything and this gives us time for a public discussion about whether the community wants to rebuild schools when they age out or have the pain of closing them down and the boundary changes that come with that."

Croft's amendment to the school district's proposed bond package said the board intends to study and have public conversations about potentially closing Central Middle School, Gruening Middle School and Inlet View Elementary School, which could save the district $100 million.

"While the upgrades at Central Middle School are needed, the board does not believe that funding temporary upgrades when the school may either be closed or completely rebuilt is a wise long-term decision," the amendment said.

By the end of October, Central Middle School on 15th Avenue near Valley of the Moon Park, was at 74 percent capacity with 434 students, according to a report given to the board in November.

Tom Roth, ASD chief operating officer, said Friday that deferring maintenance for Central Middle School, like a roof project, would not make the school unsafe. The board kept $500,000 in the bond package to brace interior walls at the school in case of an earthquake.


"I think the biggest issue of how we handle Central in the long term isn't resolved tonight," board member Pat Higgins said at Thursday's meeting.

Roth said from his perspective, Central Middle School is not on the brink of closure. "There is no plan or intent," he said. The board just expressed interest about what closures would look like, he said.

The Anchorage Assembly still must approve the $49.3 million bond package before it goes on April's ballot.

The bond package passed Thursday totaled about $3.5 million less than the one recommended by the school district, which underwent changes after the district got back results from an $11,000 public opinion survey, Roth said. The results showed that about 21 percent of respondents supported closing schools and relocating students, while about 53 percent supported rebuilding those schools and the rest didn't know or refused to answer.

The bond package included $3.5 million to replace 27 district buses, an item added by a board amendment. The bond also included $1.4 million for the design of building improvements at Whaley School and $2.6 million in design funding to move Mount Iliamna Elementary School off Joint-Base Elmendorf Richardson and into an existing elementary school, as recommended by the district administration.

Roth said the costs for design are typically about 10 percent of the total anticipated cost of the future project.

A bulk of the bond proposal -- increased by $10 million, to $41.3 million, after a board amendment -- would pay for maintenance projects at 36 schools. Projects include new roofs, digital surveillance systems and ventilation systems, Roth said.

Meanwhile, the school board struck down an amendment to remove funding for Mount Iliamna and Whaley School, as well as one that would have put $500,000 toward analyzing how to best address Aquarian Charter School's aging building.

"We cannot keep treating our charter school students like second-class citizens," said Croft, who introduced the Aquarian amendment.

The bond package comes at a precarious financial time for both the state and school district. The Alaska Legislature passed a bill earlier this year that put a five-year stop to the state reimbursement of school bonds.

If voters pass the $49.3 million bond package, they will foot the entire bill. Property taxes will increase by $11.55 for every $100,000 of assessed property, said Mark Foster, district chief financial officer.

Roth said ASD relies on voters passing school bonds so it can pay for its buildings. There is typically about $1 million reserved in the budget for immediate capital needs, like a water line breaking. The rest of the projects are financed through bonds, he said.

"This is a pretty modest bond," he said. "It is below, by about $9 million, what the district will retire in debt burden. So we are cognizant of the state fiscal situation. We are aware of the burden on taxpayers and the district is wanting to stay limited in what we're doing."

Tegan Hanlon

Tegan Hanlon was a reporter for the Anchorage Daily News between 2013 and 2019. She now reports for Alaska Public Media.