Anchorage School District braces for tough decisions on budget cuts

A sign says Anchorage School District.
The Anchorage School District Education Center street sign. (Mayowa Aina/Alaska Public Media)

The Anchorage School District faces a budget deficit of at least $68 million next year as federal pandemic funding runs out.

This year, the district is using federal pandemic funding to fill its budget gap, which was $67 million. In fiscal year 2021-2022, the projected gap was just $20 million. Over the last several years, the district has faced declining enrollment along with flat funding from the state.

Now, district administrators and the school board are facing tough decisions on large budget cuts.

The district expects to to receive millions of dollars in one-time funding from the state this year, including $16 million in operational funds. District administrators have proposed saving that money to prevent an even larger deficit for the next fiscal year. 

“If we were to have spent all of the one-time funding from the state, our deficit would be around $100 million,” the district’s Chief Financial Officer, Jim Anderson, told the school board at a work session Tuesday. “If we preserved the $16 million, and met or exceeded our fiscal year ‘23 projected enrollment, our starting point was about a $68 million deficit.”

The school board is set to vote on that plan at its Oct. 4 meeting.

Over the next few months, district administrators will discuss how to offset the deficit. At Tuesday’s meeting, they discussed closing schools and cutting sports or language immersion programs. In the coming weeks, they’ll review costs of software, student equipment, facility rentals and other expenses.

Several board members acknowledged the importance of language immersion programs and sports for many students. Board member Kelly Lessens said it’s important for parents and others in the district to reach out to elected officials and candidates about the base student allocation. That’s the amount of money per student a district receives from the state. It hasn’t increased since 2017, and inflation has turned that lack of an increase into a funding cut.

Anderson said the district plans to send out several surveys to gather community input. The first survey will go out on Friday. Others will follow throughout the next two months.

The district also plans to host community town hall meetings starting in October.

The one-time funding from the state also includes about $86.5 million to help with past bond debt. Administrators are considering a few different ways the district could use that money.

One option is returning it to Anchorage taxpayers, by using that money instead of asking for new bonds. That tax holiday could last two to three years. 

Another option is using some of that $86.5 million to pay for urgent projects, like security upgrades to school entrances. Parents, students and neighbors have asked the district to use some of that money to replace Inlet View Elementary School.

The district may be able to use the money to avoid school closures or cuts to other programs. But in an interview Wednesday, Superintendent Jharrett Bryantt said that would just further delay necessary cuts.

“We would be, this time next year, having the same conversation,” he said, “unless there’s drastic change at the legislative level.”

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