Anchorage School District says Dunleavy budget could cut programs to the bare minimum

Anchorage School District (Photo by Wesley Early, Alaska Public Media – Anchorage)

Under Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s proposed budget, public education is facing a substantial cut. K-12 programs would see a reduction of about 23 percent, in addition to losing $20 million allocated by the Legislature last year.

In the Anchorage School District, the largest in the state, officials say they’re used to going through budget negotiations with lawmakers. But they say this year’s proposed cuts are on a different scale.

ASD Superintendent Deena Bishop says the governor’s proposed budget is just a starting point.

“The process for public education funding is set up this way every year where generally what comes and is delivered in a suggestion from the governor is generally, I would say 99.9 percent of the time, not the budget for which school districts operate,” Bishop said.

Bishop says the cuts proposed by the governor are considerably higher than in years past — cutting 19.51 percent, or $110,208,000, from the district — but through advocacy from districts across the state, she expects the final number to be very different.

“School districts going to Juneau with what some might think as their hand out is the way the system is set up,” Bishop said.

The Dunleavy administration proposed a balanced budget, where revenues match spending, in order pay a full Permanent Fund dividend. The budget proposal makes large cuts to education, Medicaid and the state ferry system. During an appearance on Alaska Public Media’s Talk of Alaska program, State Revenue Commissioner Bruce Tangeman said that Alaska spends more money per student in schools than any other state in the country.

“We spend the most and we get some of the worst results,” Tangeman said. “So again that’s not sustainable. I don’t know what the solution is to that but apparently throwing more money after it hasn’t helped solve that problem.”

In the last several years, funding for public education has been flat, with no adjustments for inflation. So in practice, schools in the state have been operating with less money each year. Bishop acknowledges that the Anchorage School District has lower test scores than average, with the state as a whole ranked last in the country. But she says taking money away won’t make the situation better.

“We are last. I get that,” Bishop said. “To change that, I need the resources and really the flexibility and the support to do what’s needed. We can direct more things in schools that will change those outcomes and it’s difficult, but it takes resources to do it.”

Bishop also says that the district has already been making cuts as a result of lower funding.

“Since, in the last three years or two-and-a-half years, Anchorage School District closed two schools,” she said. “We’re looking for efficiencies. Our administration has been reduced. We’re reorganizing. We’re finding different ways to do business.”

If the governor’s proposal is approved, Bishop says the district would consider cuts to anything that isn’t a bare minimum requirement for schools to provide. That would mean cutting the dozens of teachers in programs like music, career technical courses and language immersion. Cuts to teachers in standard programs could also happen, resulting in larger class sizes. Additionally, services like free lunch programs and after school activities could be on the chopping block. Bishop says the cuts would hurt everyone, especially lower income families.

The cuts extend beyond Alaskans with children in the schools.

The governor has proposed eliminating the bond debt reimbursement program. The district had budgeted about $37.5 million for paying off bonds, with the state reimbursing the other $40 million. ASD Chief Financial Officer Jim Anderson says the governor’s change would shift responsibility for the debt to Anchorage taxpayers.

“If the average home in Anchorage is about $358,000, so for the average homeowner, it would be about a $420 increase to their property taxes next year,” Anderson said.

During his campaign, Dunleavy said he wouldn’t introduce any new taxes. When asked about this in an interview with Alaska Public Media and KTOO’s Andrew Kitchenman, Dunleavy clarified that new taxes wouldn’t originate from the state.