The Anchorage School District spent less money than they planned during the first quarter of this year. If that trend continues, they’ll have an extra $22 million left over by the end of June 2015.
Superintendent Ed Graff attributes the savings to prudent business practices and the district’s difficulty in hiring and retaining highly-experienced teachers and staff. ASD is spending less than planned on salaries and benefits.
According to state law and board policies, the district can only keep 10% of their budget in a fund balance that’s held in case of emergencies. That means they have 18 months to spend about $24 million dollars. Graff says he thinks they need to set most of it aside for next school year’s $22 million projected fund deficit.
“We do have budget challenges based on projected revenue. That’s not going away,” Graff says.
Graff says the district also needs to address ways to solve the hiring problems. The district was unable to fill 23 full-time teaching positions this year, and those classes are being taught by long-term substitutes.
“People are deciding they don’t want to take a risk and seek employment, or they understand the challenges we’re facing and the uncertainty,” he says. “You know, that’s difficult.”
The district also has dozens of posted support staff openings.
Alyse Gavin with the education advocacy group Great Alaska Schools says the fund surplus indicates unknown problems within the district.
“When we heard these numbers come out, the first thing in our mind was ‘why haven’t we heard these alarm bells sooner? A) That we’re having trouble hiring teachers, and B) that we can’t keep the teachers that have great experience that are really contributing to our classes.’ If that truly is happening over the last few months, I think we should have heard about it by now.”
Gavin says part of the problem goes back to insecurity about long-term school revenues.
School Board member Natasha von Imhof says the extra money could help complete studies and implement practices to make the district run more efficiently in the future, but they’re keeping the vacancies in mind.
“We’re going to be very conservative, I think, with the spending of the money. We will continue to make every effort to fill the needed positions, and the money will be set aside for sure.”
The district also might spend the money on summer school programs and increasing pay for substitute teachers. The administration will make recommendations and the School Board will discuss the issue during their December 1st meeting.