The Anchorage School Board on Monday voted to make several budget cut recommendations to address a $48 million shortfall. The cuts include closing Abbott Loop Elementary school, getting rid of virtual learning for elementary school students and increasing the district’s pupil to teacher ratio by one across all grade levels, likely making class sizes larger.
School Board president Margo Bellamy said approving the suggested budget cuts does not mean they’re final. While Bellamy said it’s unusual for the board to give preliminary budget cut recommendations, the school district requested input before it starts building the budget next month.
“Whatever is in this preliminary budget will come back to us,” Bellamy said at Monday night’s school board meeting. “This is just guidance for them to get started building the budget.”
However, Superintendent Jharrett Bryantt said he anticipates it being difficult to reverse the Abbott Loop closure, now that the district will be planning for it in its budgeting.
Abbott Loop was one of six schools the district recommended closing to fill the multi-million dollar budget gap. While five of those schools are off the chopping block for now, some people testified Monday that just the closure discussion has created anxiety in neighborhoods.
“Damage has already been done to six schools and their communities,” Anchorage resident Joel Potter said. “I wouldn’t be surprised to see a drop in enrollment at the schools as parents are still uncertain about what will happen because of these missteps.”
People who showed up to voice support for Abbott Loop say the possibility of closure has been a looming shadow for the last few months.
“We understand there’s a budget crisis, but we’re heartbroken,” Abbott Loop first grade teacher Dana Cain said through tears during public testimony.
Cain added that Abbott Loop is a Title I school, meaning that it serves low-income students and qualifies for federal funding. She said the district would funnel former Abbott Loop students to schools that aren’t Title I.
“So our students depend on those services that we receive by being Title I,” Cain said. “In order for them to qualify for those services, there’s a whole lot of hoops they have to jump through because they haven’t had to do that.”
The school board also suggested keeping the ASD Virtual Program for middle and high school students, but getting rid of the elementary component. ASD Virtual fifth grade teacher Jennifer Burelson said the program has more than 550 students, bringing more than $4 million to the district through the state’s per-student funding formula.
“The program fills a void by delivering quality education in a nontraditional manner,” Burelson said. “Many of the families who are enrolled in ASD Virtual would leave the district if this is not an option at the elementary level.”
There’s also support from the school board to move all sixth grade classes to middle schools over a two to three year “phased movement.” District officials say they are still working on what that could look like and will present a plan to the school board in the next few months
Additional recommended budget cuts were made to district administrative and operations staff, which would save an estimated $3.1 million.
Board member Kelly Lessens said many of the district’s budgetary problems stem from flat funding from the state. She noted that Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s proposed budget only adds just $30 to the base student allocation.
“It’s going to give us $2.6 million,” Lessens said. “$2.6 million is not very much. So there’s a lot more that we need to ask for.”
Lessens recommended audience members reach out to their legislators to advocate for more state funding for education.
The school board will vote on a final budget for next school year, including several cuts, closer to February.