The Anchorage School District is facing an uncertain financial future as officials look to overcome a $48 million budget deficit for next school year.
That budget shortfall is much less than the $68 million hole school officials have told the public it faces since July.
The district says there’s a number of reasons for that, and it’s now the amount of money the Anchorage School Board needs to focus on when it meets on Monday to decide preliminary budget cuts. There’s a list of proposals, many of them controversial, for the board to consider — from closing schools and eliminating programs to spending down savings and increasing class sizes.
Deputy Superintendent Mark Stock said among the reasons the budget deficit is now smaller is staffing.
“We have over 450 positions unfilled — some teachers but most of them classified support staff,” Stock said, noting the district doesn’t anticipate filling all of those positions in the next year.
Stock said the district also saved around $2.3 million when the city confirmed it would still pay the bill to have police officers in schools. Plus, it has roughly $9 million in unspent federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funds it can use next year. Plus, he said, there’s benefits.
“One of the things we did is we have gone through all the employees that have rejected benefits, and there was a significant amount of savings that we had not anticipated,” Stock said.
Stock said all of those factors put together bring the amount the district has to cut to $48 million.
He said the biggest reason for the deficit is that the state has not increased the base-student-allocation in years. That’s basically the amount of money districts receive per student.
“That basic amount has not changed since basically 2016 in the fall,” Stock said. “And what’s happened is inflation has run away. If you actually look at the gap, if they had inflation-proofed it all the way, all those years, what you would see is there is no budget deficit.”
Stock said, pending any major change in funding from the state, whatever budget is adopted by the Anchorage School Board in February will involve extensive cuts.
During a school board work session Saturday morning, district officials facilitated an activity aimed at helping people visualize the options for balancing the budget. Stock led the activity.
“Each board member is going through this exercise of trying to add up all the different tools and options we’ve provided over the last six months to get to what our CFO calls ‘get to zero’ but what he means is to balance the budget,” Stock said.
The activity included several cards that represented potential revenue sources the district could use to fill the gap. Some of them, like using bond debt reimbursement funds, could only be used once to cover the budget shortfall, while others, like moving all sixth graders to middle school or closing schools would yield longer-term savings.
The activity was primarily for school board members, but stations were set up around the school board meeting room for members of the public to participate as well.
Some school board members, like president Margo Bellamy, worked collaboratively with other board members to try to balance the budget. Bellamy said the activity was useful in seeing where board members were at with budget suggestions and any consensus.
“From that aspect, I think it was very successful,” Bellamy said. “I think board members were very honest and straightforward with where they were, where they are.”
After the activity, most school board members said they were able to come up with a way to balance the budget, though not every member had the same plan.
Board members found wide consensus on closing Abbott Loop Elementary School, one of six schools the district recommended closing to fill the budget gap. Additionally, there was wide support for increasing the student-to-teacher ratio by one, which would likely increase class sizes, as well as using roughly $28 million in savings, reducing the district’s fund balance to 8%.
The board is set to vote on preliminary budget cuts at its meeting on Dec. 19.