Petition for school district to pay families a dividend is unrealistic and misinformed

Coronavirus, COVID-19, Pandemic, ASD

The impacts of COVID-19 are spread throughout the world, and most certainly we are feeling the effects here in Anchorage. The Anchorage School District has been working since March to develop multiple scenarios to educate our students, driven by data, medical and education experts, and guidance from our leadership at state and local levels. Due to rising new COVID-19 cases in mid-July across the municipality, ASD announced a full online program to start school this fall, a decision in line with our school start plan.

In a recent ADN opinion piece, “School district should pay Anchorage parents a homeschool dividend,” the author described the many struggles parents and students are facing in supporting school at home. Her comments reflect many of the valid concerns I’ve heard from other parents as well. She further asked ASD to provide stipends to all families in the district, at a cost of nearly $100 million.

I feel obligated to provide clarification to the misinformed assumptions leading to her belief that ASD could distribute more than 17% of its annual operating budget to every student in the district and continue to operate at any level.

ASD expends 88% of its general operating budget on salaries and benefits to employees. A $100 million reduction would require laying off more than 1,000 employees. These layoffs would reduce staffing to such a degree that the district’s ability to safely reopen schools (once health conditions allow) would be severely degraded, causing an even greater burden on students, school staff and the entire community, while impairing the district’s ability to properly function for several years.  

However, the author suggests the money to pay for these stipends could be taken from areas of the budget that are “non-instructional.” This is a naïve perspective on how large public organizations function. For argument’s sake, let’s take a closer look at the impact of reducing “non-instructional” funds by $100 million. 

District administration, including all support services, costs a little over $14 million annually and provides the planning, oversight and other essential services directly assisting ASD’s 85 schools in their daily operations. These functions include the school board, superintendent, all of the district’s insurance requirements, human resource functions, payroll, finance, budget, information technology, health services, procurement, capital plans (construction), unemployment, worker’s compensation and our district warehouse and delivery services. Eliminating these areas, which are clearly “non-instructional” as proposed, would immediately shut down all district operations.

The Operations and Maintenance directorate costs nearly $80 million per year. The maintenance budget includes repair parts, maintenance personnel, and contracts that allow the buildings and equipment to remain in operation. It also includes the district’s utility costs (water, heating oil, gas, fuel, water, trash, etc.) and many rental agreements. The Operations Department includes all custodial employees and the costs associated with keeping buildings clean, safe and disinfected. ASD has an obligation to retain the resources needed to clean, maintain and safely operate more than $2 billion in infrastructure that is fully integrated within Anchorage neighborhoods. Although savings can be found when in-person school is not in session, they are nowhere near $100 million.

The remaining two categories, which are not directly in schools, are Student Activities and Community Services. The district budgeted just under $6 million to support student activities this school year. Redirecting these funds to pay for stipends would completely eliminate extracurricular activities (sports, clubs, etc.) for the entire year. Community Services is budgeted less than $500,000 for the school year. This organization coordinates all community rentals of school building space, all activities on school grounds and also provides the district’s auditorium technicians. Those functions would come to an end. 

The request to eliminate all district functions outside of instruction is misinformed and unrealistic. Employees couldn’t be hired or paid, all district support functions would stop, hundreds of contracts with local vendors would end and the local economic downturn would be further exacerbated. Once the danger of this pandemic passes, Anchorage would be left with a school district unable to reopen its doors to its students and staff in a safe and timely manner.   

Like most of the community, I am disheartened by the outcomes of COVID-19 in our community, yet I believe in public education and its ability to empower students through learning. Knowing the frustrations are legitimate, ASD is committed to providing quality education, whether students are at home or in school. We have spent the summer planning for a positive new school year. Please review our website, where your questions and answers on the details of our programs can be found.

I do agree with the author on one thing: We cannot, we will not, fail our children.

Deena Bishop, Ed.D., is the superintendent of the Anchorage School District.

The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by the Anchorage Daily News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)adn.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@adn.com or click here to submit via any web browser. Read our full guidelines for letters and commentaries here.

Deena Bishop

Deena Bishop is the superintendent of the Anchorage School District.