How the Anchorage School District is proposing to close a massive budget gap

Young students sit behind desks in an elementary school classroom.
Students at Birchwood ABC Elementary sit in their classroom on November 1, 2022. Birchwood ABC is one of six schools within the Anchorage School District that administrators recommend closing next year. (Elyssa Loughlin/Alaska Public Media)

The Anchorage School District faces a $68 million budget deficit next year, mainly due to declining enrollment and a lack of inflation-proofed funding from the state. That’s about 12% of the district’s $549.5 million budget for this school year.

District administrators have spent the last several months outlining potential budget cuts for the school board. 

The cuts include everything from closing elementary schools to eliminating a planning period for middle school teachers. Some savings are significant — increasing class sizes could save up to $32 million. But some are much smaller. For instance, outsourcing hockey could save $220,000 in ice rink costs. Even if the board approves all of the cuts at their highest level, the savings only add up to $48 million, at least $20 million short of closing the budget gap with cuts alone.

The school board is set to vote on a preliminary budget on Monday, Dec. 19.

Here’s more on each proposal:

School closures: up to $4.1 million

The proposed closure of six elementary schools has faced strong opposition at community town hall meetings held by the district. As of Nov. 15, the estimated cost savings vary depending on the school.

Closing Abbott Loop Elementary school and demolishing the building would save an estimated $697,000 to $983,000.

Administrators have proposed allowing charter schools to move into some of the closed school buildings. That would bring the estimated savings to $883,754 for Birchwood ABC, $841,000 for Klatt Elementary and $888,000 for Wonder Park.

Repurposing Nunaka Valley and Northwood as pre-K centers would save $246,000 and $263,000, respectively.

That brings the total savings from school closures to $4.1 million. The board will make final decisions about the closures at its Dec. 19 meeting.

students in a classroom
Estimated savings for each school closure as of Nov. 15. (Screenshot from Anchorage School District YouTube.)

Moving sixth grade to middle school: up to $5.4 million

Currently, three out of 10 middle schools in the district are sixth through eighth grade. According to a plan proposed by administrators, the other seven schools would gain sixth graders over the next two years. The move would allow the district to use large middle school buildings more efficiently, said Kersten Johnson, the district’s senior director of secondary education.

Savings would come from eliminating a collaborative planning period for teachers. The district would need 24 fewer middle school employees and save $2.9 million.

The move would also allow the district to eliminate sixth grade band and orchestra. At a Nov. 2 work session, chief financial officer Jim Anderson said getting rid of sixth grade band and orchestra could save the district $2.5 million.

Eliminating the IGNITE program: $3 million

IGNITE is a district-wide program for gifted second through sixth graders. Administrators have proposed moving the program online. The district’s teaching and learning director, Dianna Beltran, said at a Nov. 1 work session that the resulting staff reductions would save the district $3 million.

Administrative cuts: at least $2.9 million

This year, the district is spending $5.7 million on district administration and $31 million on district administrative support, which includes payroll, human resources and IT. 

Reductions to administration, travel costs and materials across 16 departments could save the district $2.9 million. At a Nov. 15 work session, administrators said they’re still looking into other potential administrative cuts.

Outsourcing hockey, swimming and gymnastics: savings in future years

Administrators are still finalizing their savings estimates from outsourcing hockey, swimming and gymnastics. Most savings would come from no longer having to rent facilities or pay for expensive gymnastics equipment, Johnson said at a Nov. 15 work session. 

Starting in fiscal year 2024, initial savings estimates include $225,000 over two years for swimming pool use, $220,000 over two years for ice rink use and $220,500 saved next year on a contract with the Dome sports complex.

All of the above cuts – school closures, middle school changes, eliminating IGNITE, outsourcing sports and cutting administrative costs – would save the district $16 million, leaving a remaining $51.6 million deficit, administrators said on Nov. 15.

A summary of proposed savings as of Nov. 15. (Screenshot from Anchorage School District YouTube.)

Increasing the pupil-teacher ratio: up to $32 million

The pupil-to-teacher ratio is a hiring metric that measures the number of students per staff member in a school. It currently ranges from 21 to 1 in kindergarten to 30 to 1 in middle and high schools, according to the district, though actual class sizes are often larger.

The cost savings from increasing the pupil-to-teacher ratio depend on the size of the increase, and whether that increase would apply to all grade levels.

Increasing the ratio by one across all grades would save the district $7 million and require 60 fewer teachers than the district needs now. Increasing it by five would save the district $32 million and require 274 fewer teachers.

The district’s fund balance: up to $28 million

District administrators could also put fund balance money from this school year — that’s money not spent — toward the deficit, which the district has done in years past. At a work session Monday, administrators estimated that the fund balance from this school year would be $28 million. In 2019, the district used $4.9 million of its fund balance to avoid increasing the pupil-teacher ratio. It used $8 million from the fund balance to help close a budget gap in 2020.

An increase in annual state funding

The school board must submit a balanced budget to the Anchorage Assembly in March. But things could change once the Legislature passes its budget in spring.

Administrators and school board members are pushing for an increase to the base student allocation, a formula that determines the amount of money per student a school district gets from the state. From 2015 to 2021, that number has stayed at $5,930. Next year, it will increase slightly to $5,960. But when adjusted for inflation, that number would be $6,820, according to Anderson.

What does the community think?

The district has conducted two surveys to gather input on budget solutions. The second survey closed on Dec. 2, and the results are yet to be published.

The first survey showed broad support for school closures and opposition to increasing class sizes. Recommendations included lobbying for an increase to the BSA, applying for grants, increasing taxes, charging parents for before and after school childcare and cutting the amount of technology used in classrooms. Some suggested a temporary freeze on raises for all employees and cutting some administrative positions that don’t work directly with students.

The school board is set to vote on a preliminary budget at its Dec. 19 meeting.

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