Anchorage School Board Passes Budget, Restores Some Counselors

Citizens give testimony at Thursday night’s Anchorage School Board meeting, where the district’s budget was passed 6-1. Photo by Daysha Eaton, KSKA – Anchorage.

The Anchorage School Board passed their budget Thursday night with one amendment restoring some counselors. The Board heard final public testimony then passed budget passed 6-1.

Nearly 30 people testified in front of the Anchorage School Board before members passed the 2013-2014 budget. Carol Benroth is a counselor at Bartlett High School. She testified about the importance of keeping regular and special education counselors and argued against the idea of replacing specialized counselors with generalists.

“One size does not fit all. What is fair, is not always equal. Students with disabilities thrive with counselors devoted to support their individual differences and specialized needs. When you consider cutting these positions tonight please ask yourself, is this what’s best for kids? I think you will find it difficult to answer yes,” Benroth said.

Keneth Mayer spoke about his own experience and about the importance of keeping counselors available for students, especially graduation coaches.

“I was bullied throughout school, I constantly thought about giving up on my education, my parents were addicted to drugs and alcohol and I became suicidal. I was fortunate to have a pair of loving grandparents help me through it, but I would have been one of the kids that these graduation coaches reached out and helped had they been in schools while I was attending. However a lot of kids today don’t even feel like they have the safety net that I had. Now these are the kids that these graduation coaches are focused on,” Mayer said.

Bonnie Paskvan testified in support of the Ignite program, for gifted students.

“This tiny cost-savings of $26,000, a tiny, tiny percentage of $25 million will result in a significantly less rich, meaningful and in-depth course offering to our students,” Paskvan said.

Donna McCarrey, a retired school teacher told a story from her time working at Dimond High School to make her point that cutting counselors could have terrible consequences. The story was about a student who was being bullied and couldn’t get in to see a counselor.

“I saw her and I asked her to wait for a minute, but she didn’t. Instead she went to her locker, left the counselor and myself a note and she walked home. Worried, we went to the security guard who immediately drove to her home and there she was on the living room floor having consumed a bottle of sleeping pills. Many months after her funeral, the police returned the letter she’d written to me and for the rest of my career I left it taped to my classroom wall as a reminder that some kids need us now,” McCarrey said.

Malcom Roberts, is a parent of a third-grader and the president of the PTA for Government Hill Elementary School. He said the budget cuts were the result of a bad paradigm set up by the state legislature.

“That paradigm should not make us make these hard choices between counselors, between coaches, between ignite, between special education. We need to fund public education in this state and we need to fund it in Anchorage. How are we going to change this paradigm? How are we going to unite these good folks out here and have them help us change the future. Cause if we don’t do that, we’re going to be here next year having the same debate, and the year after that,” Roberts said.

After about an hour and half of testimony, School Board Member Gretchen Guess proposed an amendment to restore eight counselors. School Board Member Don Smith proposed several amendments to restore career counselors, TA nurse assistants and library media assistants, by taking funds out of savings. All were voted down 6 to 1, with Smith the only yes vote.

Superintendent Jim Browder supported Guess’s amendment. He says he came to that decision by talking with high school principals.

“What we came out of that discussion with was a sense that reinstating a guidance position in those eight comprehensive high schools would give the principals more flexibility to deliver those services that we were afraid we were gonna lose – scholarships, mentorships, graduations.”

The budget was passed 6-1 with Guess’s amendment to restore counselors. The eight counseling positions were exchanged for eight direct instruction teaching positions. Smith was the only no vote. Guess said cuts totaling $140 million are expected to continue for the next six years, and the Anchorage School District needs the public’s help to convince lawmakers to provide adequate funding.

“It is a big uphill battle to fight and we need everyone to help us fight with it,” Guess said.

Guess encouraged people to call on the legislature to make education funding a priority. She encouraged people to turn out for a public hearing with the Anchorage Caucus this Saturday, from 9:30 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. in the Assembly Chambers at the Loussac Public Library and make their voices heard.

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Daysha Eaton is a contributor with the Alaska Public Radio Network. Daysha Eaton holds a B.A. from Evergreen State College, and a M.A. from the University of Southern California. Daysha got her start in radio at Seattle public radio stations, KPLU and KUOW. Before coming to KBBI, she was the News Director at KYUK in Bethel. She has also worked as the Southcentral Reporter for KSKA in Anchorage. Daysha's work has appeared on NPR's "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered", PRI's "The World" and "National Native News". She's happy to take assignments, and to get news tips, which are best sent via email. Daysha became a journalist because she believes in the power of storytelling. Stories connect us and they help us make sense of our world. They shed light on injustice and they comfort us in troubled times. She got into public broadcasting because it seems to fulfill the intention of the 4th Estate and to most effectively apply the freedom of the press granted to us through the Constitution. She feels that public radio has a special way of moving people emotionally through sound, taking them to remote places, introducing them to people they would not otherwise meet and compelling them to think about issues they might ordinarily overlook.