On Oct. 18, Anchorage School District administration proposed closing six elementary schools and distributing their staff and students across at least 10 campuses as a component of a comprehensive plan to “right size” district operations. Doing so will promote efficiencies in student services and save between $3.5 million and $4 million in operating costs for next year’s budget.
Additional proposals presented to the ASD School Board have suggested that the district can chip away at its fiscal cliff by moving all sixth graders to middle school, ending 6th grade band and orchestra, terminating the middle school model entirely, ending the ASD Virtual program, restructuring the IGNITE and immersion programs, and ending district funding for extracurricular activities including hockey, swimming, soccer and gymnastics. Even if the board were to adopt all proposed cost reduction measures discussed thus far, a deficit of more than $45 million would remain. With more than 85% of ASD’s general fund budget allocated to the salaries and benefits of education professionals, staffing reductions seem unavoidable.
To put the magnitude of the entire $68 million deficit into perspective, consider that closing the whole gap could be accomplished by increasing pupil-to-teacher Ratios, or PTR, by more than 10 across our K-12 system. Under that approach, the kindergarten PTR — the number of students per class, on average — would be over 30 next year, while middle and high school PTR would top 40. The ASD School Board has been laser-focused on an ambitious “back to basics” approach which prioritizes reading and math proficiency while producing graduates who are college-, career- and life-ready. A districtwide PTR increase of this magnitude would undermine the viability of these goals and the efforts of dedicated staff working with students every day to make them a reality. Accountability need not be accompanied by austerity.
On Nov. 8, voters statewide have the opportunity to elect Alaska’s next governor and 59 out of its 60 legislators. ASD’s capabilities to deliver public education will depend on that governor’s proposed budget, released in mid-December, and on the priorities of the Alaska’s 33rd Legislature, once they convene in January. Without immediate action from Juneau, ASD will be forced to address its fiscal cliff by moving forward on most or even all of the above proposals. If an operating budget is not passed by May 8, 2023, ASD will have to start informing an unknown number of staff that their contracts will not be renewed.
Anyone concerned by these draconian prospects must understand three things that our newly elected state leaders will be empowered to change:
First, the state has not adjusted the Base Student Allocation, or BSA, the key component of the public education Foundation Formula, to align with inflation since the 2016-2017 school year. An inflation-proofed BSA would need to increase by $640 per student to meet ASD students’ needs for the 2023-24 school year. Without a commonsense tie in Alaska law between education funding and inflation, operating budgets of school districts will continue facing vicious cycles of slow strangulation.
Second, the state of Alaska last studied the “District Cost Factor,” or DCF, a geographic cost differential that is part of the Foundation Formula, in 2004. The last appropriation for this purpose occurred in 2001, years before today’s high school seniors were born. This outdated metric may be underfunding public education in Anchorage by $20-30 million per year. Only Alaska’s Legislature, however, can appropriate funds to study what a fair, data-driven DCF should be for all of our students, statewide. This should be an immediate priority for any successful candidate in the Anchorage delegation, regardless of political persuasion. Our students deserve their fair share of resources.
Finally, the state has not increased transportation reimbursements since the 2015-2016 school year, which have remained at $481 per student per year. If your own gas or car repair budgets have increased over the past seven years, as our families’ budgets have, perhaps you can appreciate the urgency of this part of the funding equation.
As individual members of the board, we care deeply about our youth, will remain focused on their academic success and wellbeing, and are committed to doing what we can to fund the infrastructure that students need for learning to take place. But the size and scope of the state government’s underfunding — combined with a projected decline in enrollment due to low birthrates — has reached a critical juncture. To that end, we hope that voters in Anchorage and across our state prioritize candidates who are willing to invest in Alaska’s future.
The Anchorage School Board must send a balanced budget to the Anchorage Assembly for approval no later than the first week of March. To avoid teacher layoffs and the shuttering of programs which make the Anchorage School District remarkable, the state must pass a budget no later than May 8, 2023. The need for bipartisan cooperation is urgent, if we are to avoid balancing a budget on the backs of our students.
Carl Jacobs has served as a licensed therapeutic foster parent to more than 60 — and counting — at-risk youth and is the vice president of the Anchorage School Board. Kelly Lessens is a parent of two elementary students and serves as the Anchorage School Board treasurer and Finance Committee Chair. Their remarks here are their own and do not speak for the Anchorage School Board as a whole.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org or click here to submit via any web browser. Read our full guidelines for letters and commentaries here.