Alaska Dispatch News asked candidates for the April 4 election to the Anchorage Assembly and Anchorage School Board to answer a series of questions on issues facing those bodies. We're publishing their responses daily, issue by issue. The answers were fact-checked when facts were cited and edited for length, spelling, grammar and writing style.
Question: The Anchorage School District has projected a $15.3 million budget gap for the upcoming school year. What should be cut and not cut to balance the budget?
I am aware of our reduced enrollment rate, and am supportive of the superintendent's proposed budget, but would also like to see a sustainable solution that addresses continuity of staff. I believe that everyone who works for our district cares for our students and we should make every effort to reduce cuts to staffing.
I do not support cutting teaching positions or vital support staff. I would like to explore ways to generate new revenues from ASD real estate assets. I would hope to see an operations audit conducted to identify any inefficiencies that could be considered wasteful spending. I would also look at ways to lower the cost of health-care claims payouts, which is one of the main causes of the increasing cost of health insurance.
First, I will use my experience as co-chair of the Senate Finance Committee to work to update the district cost factor (DCF) within the state school funding formula. The ASD has identified this as a 2017 legislative priority and estimates this could bring additional funds more than the current funding shortfall. Second, any reductions should protect lower class sizes in lower grades. Classrooms need to be the priority. The current proposal offsets the reduction in teachers with new "instructional coaches," which has been successful in some other districts. We need to look further for reductions in administration costs.
Most of the budget cuts were teaching positions — a factor highly correlated to predicting student success, particularly at the elementary level. We should not cut teacher positions. We need school board members who can make some very difficult choices and actively reach out to parents and the community in a collaborative and respectful way. We can work to improve building capacity issues and analyze the district's new innovative program to reduce health-care costs. Positive efforts like this will help us keep teachers in the classroom and ensure the district's long-term financial health.
Did not respond to questions.
There are over 70 budgeted programs and each of them needs to be evaluated for effectiveness and possible reductions or removal. Outsourcing programs also makes sense. For instance the Mat-Su School District is outsourcing nutrition services jobs that could result in cost savings up to $4.3 million a year, and the ASD is hiring a Seattle-based health-care company to run a new medical clinic for district employees and their dependents (not teachers or bus drivers covered by union benefits) that is predicted to save as much as 12 percent in the first three years.
It is difficult to find what to cut and not cut without hurting the staff and the system. Cutting the staff hurts the employees, cutting the food vouchers hurts those who need it, cutting the maintenance hurts the employees and causes the maintenance needs to be delayed and to deteriorate. Cutting the staff is not an answer, nor is cutting the maintenance. There is no perfect answer to all this. We need to explore and find ways to better improve the budget. Sales and income taxes should be brought into the system to bolster the budget. Volunteer employees to be trained in certain services could be explored similar to the Habitat for Humanity project.
What we should not do is continue to make single across-the-district decisions for every school. Principals should be given more latitude in each building to make cuts appropriate for their school, with the understanding that staff and parents are to be part of the process. Cuts are cuts, but the right cut in one school might not be the right one elsewhere. Sand Lake is different from Ravenwood is different from Girdwood is different from Airport Heights. It's time more decisions were made by people who know the names of the students. This doesn't solve all problems, but it comes closer to getting it right.
Tomorrow: Should Alaskans receive vouchers or some other public subsidy?