The six school closures proposed by the Anchorage School District will, in future years, contribute to an annual loss of approximately $4.5 million in state and municipal revenue.
This is something the district leadership knows but has not explained to the public.
Because the state of Alaska funds smaller schools at a higher rate, ASD will forgo state and municipal funds when they close and consolidate these schools.
When the district claims $3.9 million to $4.1 million in savings from the closures, this is not ongoing but for a few years at best. The plan relies upon a provision in state law that ensures funding at pre-consolidation levels for the first two years after a school is closed, with a step down in years three and four. In five years, the schools involved in these consolidations will have to fully absorb this loss in funding, facing a reduction in state and municipal funds of $4.5 million in total.
The district is not finding efficiencies, but instead digging a deeper hole with these consolidations.
The latest savings projected for closing my neighborhood school, Nunaka Valley, are $245,783. Because of the way the state funding formula works, closing and consolidating this school will lose the district $640,000 in annual state and municipal revenue. So, once the funding at pre-consolidation levels runs out, this closure will contribute to a significant deficit.
The consolidations would displace a massive number of students for minimal short term savings. This will be particularly traumatic for vulnerable populations in the five Title 1 schools. As the district contemplates eliminating eminently walkable schools, their plans for transportation involve longer, more dangerous walking routes and more busing expenses.
Even the touted short-term savings from closing schools may not materialize over the next two years. ASD has yet to explain the math to the public or the board. Much depends on the reuse of the buildings rather than efficiencies found through consolidation itself.
The district leadership knows that the closures don’t achieve long-term savings. Whenever this is brought up, they change the topic to non-monetary benefits obtained from consolidation, such as increased specialist services and the reduction of combination classes. These are valuable things, but are they better than a place where a kid feels safe and known? Is it better than a place they can safely walk to that is a vibrant hub for their community? After the other $56 million in cuts are determined, why think that students at consolidated schools will have greater access to special services? And if those services survive the cuts this year, what will happen in 4-5 years when the pre-consolidation level funding is lost and they have to accommodate a 9% funding reduction?
The other thing the district mentions is projected enrollment and population loss. But the evidence provided is insufficient and, in some cases, misleading. It’s quite possible that ASD is closing schools in parts of town where more young families are moving and having children, since no community-specific birth rate data were used and what is cited for Anchorage is a couple of years old. Enrollment increased again this year, but to date, the district has not provided accurate Fiscal Year 2023 enrollment numbers in town hall presentations or the Fiscal Year 2024 Budget Solution webpage. Updated enrollment decreases the shortfall from $68 million to $60 million.
There’s no denying that there are ASD buildings that could be more fully utilized, but the district needs to find ways to do this that are not so disruptive to our children. And it can be done. Neighborhood schools can share buildings with charter schools and add preschool capacity.
It’s time for Anchorage to embrace what we have in our walkable neighborhood elementary schools, instead of ignoring Alaska’s funding formula and worsening the budget situation.
Joel Potter is an associate professor of philosophy at the University of Alaska Anchorage.
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