The Anchorage School Board is set to vote Tuesday evening on its budget for the upcoming school year. The vote comes at a time of a lot of uncertainty around how much funding the state Legislature will send to schools.
Right now, Anchorage School District officials estimate next year’s budget gap at around $48 million — if no big boost to state funding comes.
To close the gap, district officials have pitched various ways to cut spending from eliminating gifted and virtual learning programs to outsourcing swimming and hockey facilities. The district’s chief financial officer, Andy Ratliff, said the district didn’t think all of the proposed cuts would happen.
“We knew a lot of them wouldn’t be acceptable to the community,” Ratliff said. “But we really wanted to highlight what those additive costs are so everyone was aware of what we spend our money on.”
The school board will vote Tuesday on a budget that largely relies on using the district’s savings and one-time state and federal funding to fill the projected budget gap.
“In order to maintain operations and have education look similar to what it has in the past, we’ve used all those one-time funds,” Ratliff said. “But it is going to come due the following year, when we no longer have any more one-time funds.”
While the proposed budget no longer eliminates big programs, it would increase the pupil-to-teacher ratio by one next school year. That essentially means on average class sizes will go up. The district is also closing two elementary schools.
“We did close Abbott Loop, and in our budget, Ursa Major was also closed,” Ratliff said. “That was closed this year due to structural deficiencies in the building that were identified, and those students were moved to Aurora and Orion elementary schools.”
The school board’s vote Tuesday follows its timeline for approving the district’s budget, but big uncertainty still looms.
School districts across Alaska are closely watching the state Legislature. Lawmakers are debating an increase to the base student allocation, or how much state funding each district gets per student.
The BSA is currently $5,930 and hasn’t increased since 2016. Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s proposed budget increases the amount by $30, a bump of about half a percentage point.
Ratliff said the flat funding from the state in recent years — which hasn’t kept up with inflation — has made it difficult for districts to plan their budgets ahead of time.
“Our forward planning is always looking out that you’re going to have to make reductions,” Ratliff said. “There’s nothing that says we’re going to have the same number of people for the same number of students going forward, so we can shift our services and try to provide. It’s always in a mode of… inflation’s going to cost $15-20 million next year. How are we going to make up that difference?”
There is potential relief ahead.
One of the proposals in the Alaska Legislature would increase the BSA by $1,000. It was brought forward in the Senate Education committee, chaired by Anchorage Sen. Löki Tobin. Tobin said the proposed raise comes after the Alaska Association of School Boards said that an increase of about $860 would catch schools up with years of inflation.
“That number, they projected, would help bring them up to current funding and meet the 24.6% projected inflation that eroded the value of the current BSA,” Tobin said.
Tobin said she hopes that a $1,000 increase would help bolster schools, rather than just catch them up.
“Adding back some guidance counseling, or potential mental health services,” Tobin said. “Or reinstituting elective classes that have been cut, or adding that extra AP math course. The extra money was meant to really infuse education, to put blood back into an atrophied system.”
While it’s still early in the legislative session, Tobin said she’s confident that a substantial BSA increase will be signed into law this year.
If the BSA were boosted by $1,000, Ratliff said it would mean about $73 million more for the Anchorage School District.
“That would allow us to add some of the things back or put money back in savings,” he said. “Because our budget for next year is really heavily reliant on use of our savings accounts.”
After the Anchorage School Board votes on the budget Tuesday night, it heads to the city for approval.