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Anchorage School District braces for budget setbacks

By Rhonda McBride 10:52 PM December 13, 2013

With rising costs, some educators contend flat funding is akin to a cut

ANCHORAGE – Count Alaska schools as among the most disappointed by Gov. Sean Parnell’s new spending plan for the coming fiscal year. On Thursday, the governor announced $1.3 billion in cuts.

Although schools escaped the budget axe, funding remains flat. Educators contend, in the face of rising costs, it basically amounts to a cut.

On Friday, the Anchorage School Board and the Anchorage Assembly held a joint meeting to assess the impact.

The district cut $25 million last year — and unless funding is increased, expects to cut $23 million this year and $27 million the following year, $75 million in three years.

Mark Foster, the school district’s chief financial officer, blames rising costs for health care and energy, which take a bigger bite out of the budget every year.

“Here’s our challenge,” Foster said in a presentation at the joint meeting, “How do we continue in this environment where we’ve got flat funding and significant staffing reductions?”

Several board members told the group they are worried about the impact on the district’s graduation rate, which in recent years has shown steady improvement.

Natasha von Imhof, vice president of the school board, talked about the importance of helping ninth graders who struggle in school. The district surveyed dropouts and found that 95 percent of them had failed one or more classes in ninth grade, she said.

Mike Graham, the chief academic officer for the district and the former principal of East High School, worries about the impact of recent cuts to programs like summer school and tutoring for at-risk students.

“Our graduation rate has continued to climb every year, and I’m very proud of that,” Graham said. “The concern right now is that momentum, which is all going in the right direction, could get jeopardized when we take out those supports.”

Assembly and school board members also debated the merits of the School Resource Officer program, which puts police officers in the schools. Assembly member Paul Honeman said he hopes the city will continue to fund the resource officers, so that it’s one program the school district won’t have to worry about.

The SRO discussion came not long after both the school board and the Assembly took time out for a moment of silence to mark the one-year anniversary of the Sandy Hook shootings.

Then their attention returned to troubles here at home. The district expects to cut about 600 jobs over the next two years — too many positions to trim through attrition, which means lay-offs are likely, unless Republican majority lawmakers and the governor consider increasing the per pupil allocation, known as the education funding formula.

Parnell has said he’s willing to meet with educators and Democrats, who are pushing for more education money. But rather than increasing spending, he wants to focus on finding ways to stretch state dollars. He did include $5 million in the education budget to promote the use of new technology, which he believes could lead to future savings.

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