EDITORIAL: The Anchorage School District’s painful, necessary choice

The Anchorage School District’s leadership made waves at its April 23 School Board meeting by announcing plans to close multiple schools. ASD administration made it clear to those in attendance that the decision was based not on the continued uncertainty over state funding (although that has been the backdrop for all of this year’s school budget discussions), but on declining enrollment that has seen Alaska’s largest school district fall from a high of about 50,000 students to just shy of 44,000 today. That’s an important distinction, and one residents should take to heart: The process of school closures may be tough, but it’s essential to keeping school funding dollars going where they matter most — the classroom.

Prior announcements of pending school closures have mostly been walked back (last year, plans to shutter six elementary schools were reduced to one, Abbott Loop Elementary) — but there’s reason to believe that won’t be the case this time. Since 2009, the district has closed three schools, reducing capacity by 919, but enrollment has shrunk by 5,817 students over the same period, so closures haven’t come close to keeping pace with net outmigration and declining birth rates in Anchorage. There have been funding windfalls recently that allowed ASD to largely avoid confronting the excess capacity in that time — high oil prices allowing for bigger state budgets, increased federal aid related to the COVID-19 pandemic, and old-fashioned parent pressure to keep neighborhood schools open despite their lower enrollment. Arguably, ASD should have seen this eventuality coming long ago. One silver lining of the fiscal debate in Juneau is that it’s now abundantly clear that the money spigot won’t be so easy to turn on this time — we must confront the hard decisions head-on.

It’s understandable that parents tend to turn out and fight for the schools closest to them — in the event of consolidation, by definition, the alternative is never as convenient or close at hand for those whose neighborhood schools have closed. Also difficult for parents is the feeling that school closures mean we’re moving in the wrong direction, reflecting our city’s slowly shrinking population. That’s not an easy reality to accept — and, to be clear, we should fight to reverse that decline — but it is the reality nevertheless, and as stewards of the public trust and funds, it’s past time ASD accepted it.

It’s also important to underscore that the district should be as evenhanded and transparent as possible in its process of deciding which schools must close. One factor in aggravating parent ire at the previous round of proposed school closures was the perception that the reductions were unfair, and that the decisions were based on factors other than those that would minimize disruption for students and the community. This time around, we hope the School Board has learned the lesson that it should show its work and explain in detail why the chosen schools will be slated for closure — although of course no solution will satisfy everyone.

Ultimately, having our school capacity more closely mirror our actual enrollment is an essential step toward keeping education funding where it does the most good. Anchorage’s schools are aging, and consolidating will help save money both on maintenance and administrative costs. That means a greater share can be applied to classroom learning, whether on teachers or materials to help improve student proficiency. And that’s the right place for it, especially given the still-uncertain state of funding in the Alaska Legislature. Despite the education funding tug-of-war in Juneau’s continued disruption for districts and the state, the debate has had the beneficial effect of making districts do what they can to address potential fiscal shortfalls — and the result will be greater efficiency of operations for our district. By making this hard but necessary decision, the School Board will show the community it’s making an effort to address its part of the school funding equation; now it’s time for legislators to follow through on their own work by hammering out an education funding solution that has already consumed a great deal of this year’s session.

Anchorage Daily News editorial board

Editorial opinions are by the editorial board, which welcomes responses from readers. Board members are ADN President Ryan Binkley, Publisher Andy Pennington and Opinion Editor Tom Hewitt. The board operates independently from the ADN newsroom. To submit feedback, a letter or longer commentary for consideration, email commentary@adn.com.