ASD seeking solutions to staff morale, hiring and retention problems

Financial uncertainty at the Anchorage School District is leading to morale problems and an inability to attract qualified teachers. The School Board is looking for solutions.

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Marty Decker has taught English at Chugiak High School for 20 years, but now he’s thinking of retiring early. His class sizes have grown, he has less support, and many of his fellow teachers have been transferred to other areas.

“I love the kids,” he says. “But the added duties and the stresses and the broken hearts of people around me being transferred away, et cetera is pretty tough to take on.”

Decker says it’s no surprise to him that the district is having trouble recruiting new teachers because they offer low pay and no designated retirement. He says programmatic cuts are hurting students, too.

“The kinds of experiences that make a kid want to go to school, the elective subjects et cetera have been basically gouged out of the scenario. So, I think that in addition to the large class numbers that are sort of intimidating for students, there’s less for them to come to school for.”

Decker spoke before the Anchorage School Board on Monday evening. Other parents and teachers talked about the lack of substitute teachers. When a sub can’t be found, principals teach or classrooms are split up. The district is also having trouble hiring support staff, like IT technicians.

ASD already has an extra $8 million in the fund balance because of the high vacancy rate and the lower salaries for the less experienced teachers they hired. If the trend continues, they’ll have $21 million by the end of the fiscal year.

But School Board Member Kameron Perez-Verdia doesn’t see it as a budget surplus.

“What we do have is a $22 million deficit this next year and a $70 million plus deficit in the next three years. We have a serious financial problem and we also have serious internal challenges because of the cutting we’ve been doing for the last three years.”

Perez-Verdia and other board members say they want to focus on improving student experiences and overall morale for the second semester of this year.

So the district is considering solutions, such as increasing pay for substitute teachers. The rate hasn’t been raised in seven years. They’re also looking at hiring a recruiter to help find qualified teachers, especially teachers for Special Education. That department has a 6 percent vacancy rate.

Parents also made suggestions like giving retired teachers incentives to substitute teach, stop moving staff to different schools to improve continuity, and create schools where teachers feel safer expressing themselves.

The Board will make final decisions on how to spend the unassigned fund balance on December 15. They could decide to put some of the money toward next year’s projected fund deficit.

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After being told innumerable times that maybe she asked too many questions, Anne Hillman decided to pursue a career in journalism. She's reported from around Alaska since 2007 and briefly worked as a community radio journalism trainer in rural South Sudan. ahillman (at) alaskapublic (dot) org | 907.550.8447  |  About Anne