The main reason for the Anchorage School District’s plan to close six elementary schools is not because it saves the district money. In fact, consolidating schools will actually reduce state funding and eventually cost the district in lost revenue.
Instead, the reason is because the district is trying to meet the demands of politicians who are unwilling to adjust the Base Student Allocation until the district “right sizes” their infrastructure by closing schools.
Speaking of politicians in Juneau, here’s what ASD’s Chief Financial Officer, Jim Anderson, said at a joint work session of the Anchorage School Board and the Anchorage Assembly last week:
“…there have been people every year saying, “when are you going to start right-sizing,” which can be defined a lot of different ways, but in their mind, “you still have a lot of schools under capacity…And they don’t feel comfortable giving us more money until they think we’ve made all the steps we can do to be as efficient as we can…there are a lot of people in Juneau that expect us to try and maximize our efficiency.”
Consolidating in order to meet political demands is the wrong way to approach school closures. It causes the district to choose political expediency over sustainable cost savings and to pursue unprincipled and non-transparent processes for solving the budget shortfall.
- If political expediency wasn’t the primary objective, would the closure of six elementary schools with temporary cost savings of only $4 million be the only concrete recommendation on the table at this point to fill a $60 to $68 million budget gap?
- Would the district be planning to let charter schools occupy the same buildings with considerably fewer students than the current neighborhood schools?
- Would the district be moving forward for a vote on December 5th to allocate over $30 million for the total rebuild of one of the smallest schools in the district, serving one of the most affluent and politically connected neighborhoods in Anchorage?
The district has accepted the terms of a particular political vantage point that reductively translates efficiency into increased building utilization rates.
- But is it efficient if far fewer students can safely walk to school and many more will have to be bused?
- Is it efficient if it is harder for teachers to connect with parents because they don’t come by to drop off their kids at the door?
- Is it efficient if we see an increase in classroom behavior, discipline problems, and crime in the new consolidated 400 to 500 student elementary schools?
- Is it efficient to require parents to drive or for the district to bus five hundred preschoolers to two centralized locations instead of providing preschool within walking distance throughout the city?
- Is it efficient, does it promote student learning, to uproot about 1,200 elementary aged kids, many of whom have suffered the worst of pandemic schooling and who represent a sizable portion of ASD’s economically disadvantaged students?
As Mr. Anderson said, “right-sized” can mean a lot of things to different people.
The problem is that, right now, people who don’t represent the legislative districts where these schools are located and don’t know what its residents care about are dictating the terms of efficiency and quality.
Because of the undue political influence on the current process, the school board should table the plans for school closure.
To avoid this problem in the future, it should move to form a District Advisory Committee with members recommended by each Anchorage community council. In the next year, let the committee in concert with district administration gather the relevant facts, develop community-informed guiding criteria, and identify solutions in consultation with local experts.
And if the administration wants to take the lead on reducing infrastructure costs this year, how about they start by moving their administrative offices out of the commercially rented Northern Lights Blvd building? This would have much less impact on school children and could save the district millions.
Joel Potter is an associate professor of philosophy at the University of Alaska Anchorage and resident of the Nunaka Valley neighborhood in Anchorage.