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Facing $98M deficit, Anchorage School Board begins to narrow down potential cuts

Jan. 20—The Anchorage School Board is weighing the cuts it is willing — and unwilling — to make as it grapples with the difficult task of balancing a $98 million structural budget deficit for the upcoming school year, with no promise of additional state education funding to help fill in the gaps.

Last week, the board approved a list of potential reductions they would consider to balance the budget — including increasing middle and high school class sizes; cutting the IGNITE program for gifted students; eliminating dozens of administrator and teacher positions; downsizing summer school; significantly spending down the district's savings; delaying new curriculum and device purchases; reducing travel; and increasing activity and rental fees for students.

Board members are expressing grave concerns about the potential impacts the cuts could have on students, teachers and families.

"I think whatever we do is going to have a negative impact on a significant number of students," board member Andy Holleman said.

"Parents need to understand that the future of their child's education is at stake, and the programs that they have enjoyed ... it's all at risk," said board president Margo Bellamy.

They said they are anticipating passing a budget with painful cuts. The Alaska Legislature returned to session this week with education funding as an early focus — but it failed to override the governor's veto of $87 million in one-time education funding in a vote late Thursday.

The Anchorage School District administration will use that guidance to create a balanced budget by Feb. 6, which the board will then need to approve by Feb. 20. After that, the budget will head to the Anchorage Assembly for final approval in March.

In interviews and during public meetings, board members said the scale of the deficit they are now facing is a reflection of years of flat state funding and the drying-up of pandemic-era federal relief funds that helped avoid an earlier budget crisis.

The school board, along with the Anchorage Assembly, recently called on state legislators to raise the state's per-school funding formula, called the Base Student Allocation, or BSA, which hasn't significantly increased since 2017.

"Depending on what the Legislature does, that's going to shape the options that we have, and the cards that we have," said board member Kelly Lessens. "We have a very hard path ahead."

Increased class sizes are likely

Board members said this week that increasing class sizes for students in the fourth grade and above was likely.

Class sizes increase when the board approves an increase to the pupil-teacher ratio, or PTR, which in effect means eliminating teacher positions and consolidating classes.

Holleman said an increase in the pupil-teacher ratio most likely wouldn't translate to layoffs given the existing vacancies and high attrition rate the district is facing.

If approved, it will be the second year in a row that class sizes in the district increase — last year, the board approved a ratio increase of 1, though this year's increase could be larger.

Bellamy and Holleman, both former teachers, said they were particularly worried about the impact larger class sizes would have on student learning and teacher retention.

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School district data showed that the average middle and high school "core" class size this year was about 25. A third of all elementary students were in classes with 26 or more kids.

"When teachers start getting 40 kids in a secondary classroom, or over 30 kids in elementary classroom — both situations that we have right now — we lose good people," Holleman said. That leads to more hard-to-fill vacancies and even larger classes, board members say.

"It's just a domino effect," Bellamy said.

Cuts to sports off the table — for now

Despite some differences, board members said this week they were committed to passing a balanced budget that preserves as many programs and services as possible.

They emphasized that a lot could change in the coming weeks, and seemed largely in agreement on several actions. Those include spending down their rainy-day fund balance to 5%, with an approximate boost of about $71 million, along with a shortlist of cuts they did not want to see in the budget.

Off-the-table trims include: increasing class sizes for students in kindergarten through third grade; cutting sports and activities; eliminating school counselors, nurses or librarians; and reducing school security.

At their most recent meeting, board members briefly debated whether to include sports and activities on their list of potential cuts before deciding against it for now.

Several members, including Dave Donley and Dora Wilson, said they were against cutting sports, which they said are valuable to many students and families and have a positive impact on attendance rates and students' sense of connection to their schools.

Holleman said he believed cutting sports was on the horizon without increased state investment in public education, but wanted to see public conversations about the possibility of cutting sports and activities before eliminating it from the budget.

Lessens, who pitched the idea, said that although she values sports, she believes the board has a responsibility to consider cutting them, too, given the enormity of the budget deficit, the board's academic priorities and the seriousness of the other cuts the board is considering.

"We can save an additional $5 million and protect about 50 teachers by removing sports and activities, or we can increase our pupil-teacher ratios," Lessens said.

"I'm so impressed by student athletes. They are working hard to balance so many things, and they develop grit and teamwork and wonderful life skills," she said. "But I don't know that ASD should be in the business of promoting sports at the expense of increasing our class sizes."

At least one other board member agreed.

Pat Higgins said that if actions like delaying curriculum and device purchases are on the table as potential cuts — both of which he believes directly impact academic outcomes — sports should be, too.

"We're not saying we want to cut sports, we're just saying it's not off the table," Higgins said.

A draft budget for the 2024-25 school year will be presented and discussed at the board's Feb. 6 meeting and voted on at the Feb. 20 meeting.

For information about providing public testimony on the Anchorage School District budget, visit asdk12.org/Page/1443.