Over the last ten years, enrollment in the Anchorage School District has dropped by 5,000 students. Now, there are 18 schools in the district operating at less than 65% capacity.
That enrollment decline is one of the big reasons why the district faces a budget gap of at least $68 million next year.
The district is considering closing some schools to help fill that gap. District chief financial officer Jim Anderson said the district could save between $2.5 and 3.5 million if it closed five elementary schools, depending on the schools and whether the district would need to add new bus routes.
But he knows it won’t be easy.
“Everywhere you go, everyone loves, adores, their neighborhood school,” he said. “It is a community center in many cases.”
Birth rates are declining all over Alaska, and fewer young couples are moving to Anchorage. As fewer young kids enter the school system, elementary schools shrink. But as those kids grow up, Anderson said, all schools will eventually feel the impact.
“Ultimately, that will end up reaching middle schools, and years down the road, if we don’t get something in Anchorage that draws in families with children, ultimately that will certainly impact high schools as well,” Anderson said.
The district hired consultant Shannon Bingham to help figure out which schools make the most sense to close or repurpose. He plans to share a list of potential schools to close at the next school board meeting on Oct. 18.
That list will be based on a range of factors beyond enrollment, including the condition of school buildings, how much money has gone into recent repairs, and how combining or closing certain schools could impact district bus routes.
A big factor is the capacity of a building, and how many sections – or classes – per grade level are at the school.
“Right now, our average building is about 1.9 sections per grade level at the elementary level,” Bingham said. “In order to become more efficient, we would want to make that larger.”
Combining some smaller schools could bring that number of sections per grade to 3 or 4. And Anderson said there are some potential benefits for students and staff.
Kids at larger schools may have better access to electives, like sports or debate teams that might not have enough interested students at smaller schools.
It can also improve their access to specialists, like those who help students with reading. Currently, some specialists go to several schools to work with a small number of students.
“They go to multiple schools to see just a couple people, as opposed to having a larger school, where maybe you would have a full time specialist at that school serving the needs of all the students five days a week,” Anderson said.
The district is also considering making all middle schools 6th grade through 8th grade. Bingham said that would allow the middle school buildings to serve more kids, and free up space in elementary schools during mergers.
Anderson said high schools are the least likely to close, since the district plans to implement new college and career preparation programs in the coming years.
That means elementary schools are the most likely candidates for closures or mergers.
After the list comes out, the district plans to host town hall meetings with those school communities from Oct. 26 through Nov. 3.
School closures are just one option the district is considering to address the budget gap. And while the district must approve a balanced budget in February, one-time state funding could arrive a few months later and relieve some of the budget crunch.