The Anchorage School District, as the largest public school district in Alaska, offers numerous opportunities for students and faces many challenges in meeting the needs of its students and staff. In looking to meet all needs equitably and efficiently, the district continually seeks to maximize the use of all resources. This spring, the School Board is undertaking a facilities efficiency study to look at the long-term needs for facility use and planning. Recommendations will be made to the School Board at the April 16 meeting.
This year alone, district administration has experienced reductions in staffing (maintenance, operations/custodial, safety and security at the schools, etc.), resulting in less capacity for oversight and services within the district. Business processes and service protocols often have difficulties keeping up the pace of change necessary to shift resources quickly. It requires the development of new skill sets by the workforce to allow them to do more.
Since 2013, ASD has experienced a reduction in student enrollment by 1,745 students. With fewer students, fewer teachers and support personnel are needed. However, the cost of doing business does not automatically trend downward. Because of health care cost increases, inflationary utility increases, wage increases per collective bargaining agreements, and curriculum and other supplies purchases, education costs continue to rise. About 88 percent of ASD costs are for salaries and benefits, and 78 percent of all funds support teaching and learning staff in our schools.
School funding in Alaska comes primarily from two sources: the state, and for incorporated cities and boroughs, local funding, capped through regulations. In the United States, revenue from property taxes and local funding makes up more than a third of public school revenue. About 37 percent of ASD funding comes from the Municipality of Anchorage, which funds to the maximum allowed by the state cap. Our city supports public education. Alaska has set a beginning amount for districts for each student, termed the Base Student allocation (BSA), which has remained at $5,930 for three years.
The ASD School Board established "Three B's" as its legislative priorities to speak to the Legislature as we seek funding for education. The first "B" is the Base Student Allocation, in which we ask the Legislature to adequately fund districts through adjustment of the BSA. Stagnant BSA funding has caused ASD to increase class sizes. The second "B" in the ASD priorities is busing. Transportation is funded separately from the operational revenue from the state; without inflation-proof levels of revenue, ASD must reduce classroom funding because we are forced to supplement all transportation funding with operational dollars. The third "B" is bond debt reimbursement. Restoring the state's funding reimbursement to the former limits of 70/30 or 60/40 for cities and boroughs would help ASD plan for the future.
Again, the district's three priorities to communicate to our Legislature were specifically designed to speak to the three unique funds established by the state to support its public schools. The designers of our public education system chose to keep the monies for transportation, school operations (instruction) and capital needs separate. The three divisions of resources make good sense, yet continue to provide some confusion for our public. Over the last few weeks, I have been asked why ASD does not simply save money for major maintenance such as new roofs and fire suppression systems, which our bond package includes. This question is sound, for as a homeowner, I would not get a loan to do the maintenance on my house — I would save for this expense. However, the capital improvement program for the state of Alaska is designed to bond for major maintenance to schools.
Separate from operating money for public school districts and from money used for busing and transportation, capital needs are prioritized according to project scoring by the Office of Management and Budget. Alaska Statute Sec. 44.85.005 was amended to read, "… The rapid growth of municipalities in the state and the incorporation of new municipalities has created a demand for capital improvements that can only be met by these municipalities borrowing money through the issuance of bonds or notes." With regard to any district capital projects, the Final SB237 Report issued in February 2017 states, "The applications (for school construction and major maintenance grant funding) must be for projects that cost more than $25,000, and that can be demonstrated to be construction or major maintenance related and not routine maintenance."
ASD has put forth bond initiatives for Anchorage voters to consider, including this year's bond proposal of $50.6 million in roof replacements, roof improvements, and fire suppression, seismic, safety, and infrastructure code upgrades. The work at 15 ASD schools will increase the functional life of those facilities, projecting the investment of Anchorage residents. If approved, this revenue will be coupled with our internal budget for preventative maintenance to support the high quality of learning places for students, staff and community.
Deena Bishop is superintendent of the Anchorage School District.