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Relentless cuts diminish our schools

An Anchorage School District school bus travels down Spenard Road in traffic in Anchorage, Alaska, on Friday, December 2, 2016. (Bob Hallinen / Alaska Dispatch News)

The state Legislature has some tough decisions ahead. No matter the choices, people will be unhappy. Before making any final decisions, I urge legislators to consider the lasting impact their decisions will have and how the choices made now will shape our Alaska community for decades to come.

This session, the Anchorage School Board has frequently been in contact with members of the Legislature to advocate for students. We support funding for the "3 B's" — base student allocation, bond debt reimbursement and busing.

Due to Senate talk circulating about a 5 percent cut to base student allocation funding, legislators as well as community members, parents and school staff have asked about the financial impact a 5 percent cut to the state's allocation will have on the Anchorage School District, and how such a reduction would impact class sizes.

The answer depends on where the money comes from. A 5 percent reduction to the allocation would hit ASD with approximately $27 million in cuts from both the state and the local tax cap. If the Legislature underfunds the foundation program without actually changing the base student allocation, the impact to ASD would be approximately $16 million. Regardless of where the money comes from, both numbers are frightening.

Education is a people-intensive business. About 90 percent of ASD's budget comprises people — salary and benefits, with the bulk of staff being teachers. Any further reduction in state education funding would most likely result in class size increases. Generally speaking, the average cost per full-time equivalent employee for salary and benefits is $100,000, so a $16 million reduction is the equivalent of 160 full-time equivalent positions. A $27 million reduction is the equivalent of 270 full-time equivalent positions. In this event, the ASD would need to analyze any potential decreases, taking a holistic view of the district and its programs.

There are those who don't understand the types of reductions we have made in our budget since 2013 and question why we would consider cutting teachers and raising class sizes in the event of any future funding shortfalls. Here are some facts about staff reductions in the past five years:

• We've cut 100 non-school-based personnel (administration). This accounts for 25 percent of all the reductions we have made in five years and 11 percent of all non-school-based positions. When school personnel ask me why it takes so long to receive service for certain functions performed outside of the schools, I point out the reality of what happens when you have one person doing what three people used to do.

• 125 school-based personnel, not including teachers.

• 109 teachers. Of those, about 80 positions were eliminated due to declining student enrollment. In the past five years, ASD student enrollment has gone down by 4.06 percent or 1,964 students. The reductions in teachers account for nearly 7 percent of all school-based positions.

• 59 school-based and non-school-based special education employees.

In addition to these significant reductions in staff, 393 full-time equivalent employees in five years, the district has increased efficiencies and made cost reductions in maintenance, custodial services and transportation. ASD has succeeded in setting up shared service agreements with the municipality of Anchorage for audits, risk management, vehicle maintenance and facility maintenance support to Solid Waste Services on a fee-for-services-provided basis. The district is charting the way in terms of lowering health care benefit costs for our employees with the ASD employer-sponsored health care clinic to open this fall.

I have spent 33 years of my career working with ASD, five of them on the school board. I feel like we've been a frog in a pot of hot water for the past five years when it comes to budgeting. Each year, we've improved our swimming (e.g., improved our services and efficiencies) and figured out a way to get out of the pot, but then we get shoved back in the water and the heat increases! Please allow us to escape the pot before our community has a dead frog on its hands. Dissecting public education won't create a community of which any of us wants to be a part.

Tam Agosti-Gisler is president of the Anchorage School Board.

The views expressed here are the writer's and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary@alaskadispatch.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@alaskadispatch.com. 

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