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With deficits looming, Anchorage School Board considers drastic cuts

Facing years of projected flat funding and budget deficit of roughly $75 million over the next three years, the Anchorage School Board is exploring drastic ways to run the state's largest school district with less money.

One of the avenues under discussion involves closing and consolidating schools to save money.

Over the past two years, the school district has cut more than 300 staff and teacher positions and slashed funds for supplies and equipment to balance twin $25 million budget gaps. To do this, the district laid off support staff and left unfilled positions vacated by retirements and other departures, managing to largely stave off large-scale layoffs of classroom teachers.

The district is at the beginning of another budget process for the 2015-16 school year that will require another $25 million in cuts. The same is forecast for each of the next two years after. The deficits, the school district has said, are caused by a combination of flat funding and inflation and will continue without a change in state's base student allocation formula, which provides the bulk of district funding.

Board members and district officials say the cuts are getting close to the bone.

"We're trying to figure out alternative ways to handle this structural deficit," school board president Eric Croft said.

On Oct. 6, the board asked the district for a cost analysis of closing schools, including specialty offerings and some of the smaller neighborhood elementary schools operating under capacity.

Fewer schools would mean the school district could save money in the short term by reducing the number of principals, administrative staff, utilities and maintenance, school board member Pat Higgins said. Combining schools also could make it possible to maintain elective offerings such as art, music and world languages if the district continues to have to eliminate teaching positions.

Savings and costs

In some cases, the district found that closing a school and redistributing students to other campuses would save money. In other cases, it would cost the district money.

Closing one of its most prized programs, the career- and tech-oriented King Career Center, and moving students to comprehensive high schools would save $1,877,341, the analysis found.

Closing Lake Hood Elementary and redistributing students to Northwood, Willow Crest and Turnagain would mean a $150,085 loss. The district would lose money on some school closures thanks to an element of the state funding formula called the "school size factor" that reimburses districts at a lower rate for students at larger schools.

Officials have cautioned that the analysis is more of a thought exercise than a plan. If the board did decide to pursue school closures, the process would take years.

"There are no current plans to close any schools," Croft said. "The bad news is that we did direct the administration to tell us whether there were any school closures that would make fiscal and programmatic sense."

Higgins and Croft say they lean against the idea.

"I think there are going to be consolidations that are stupid ideas because they don't save us much money, and I think there are consolidations that are stupid because they would do bad things," like close a successful program like the King Career Center, Croft said.

Higgins said research shows smaller schools have a positive impact on academic achievement and the loss of neighborhood schools decreases participation in extracurriculars and the chances that families will be involved in their children's education.

"I believe that this change will have a long-term negative impact on public education and other cuts should be made first," he said.

'Death by a thousand cuts'

School board member Natasha Von Imhof said the idea should not be dismissed.

Over the last three years, she said, the district has "cut a little here, a little there" without considering the big picture.

"Right now we're doing death by a thousand cuts," she said.

Von Imhof is pushing for the district to undergo an "all-encompassing strategic alignment" study similar to the prioritization process the University of Alaska Anchorage conducted during the last school year, taking stock of all its programs and offerings to determine which ones are most successful and worthy of future investment -- and which should be eliminated.

Von Imhof said board members were receptive to the idea at a work session held Oct. 29.

This would be a good idea even if the district was flush with money, she said.

If state budget deficits deepen and the financial picture worsens, a prioritization plan "would put a system in place for how we can thoughtfully make decisions," she said.

Von Imhof believes that "avoiding the discomfort" of consolidating schools comes with a hazard: watering everything else down. If school consolidation proves to be a viable way to save money and preserve programs, it "should warrant serious consideration," she said:

"It's better to eliminate one program in its entirely, thereby preserving the integrity of the system as a whole."

Everything is on the table as the board and district look to the 2015-16 budget, Croft said.

"We're searching for the magical $20 million savings that won't hurt a kid in the district," he said. "I don't think it exists, but we're going to keep looking."