Anchorage School District manipulates data on school capacity, shrinking student population

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By DAVID BOYLE

The Anchorage School District has put itself in a real financial bind. Over the years, the district has lost students while maintaining the same infrastructure.

Now, the school board must make the difficult decisions on how to close a $68 million budget gap. Some solutions put forth include school closures/consolidations, eliminating language immersion classes, and elimination of the gifted Ignite program. 

Each of these programs has its own vocal supporters. At its Oct. 4 meeting the board room overflowed with parents and students who were strong supporters of the several language immersion programs. They testified to the value of the programs. 

Although these language programs are of value to a small group of students, the question to the board should be, “Can students learn languages just as well without immersion programs?” It is important to look at the greater good; however, expect a huge push back from the supporters.

The most obvious area to target in reducing expenses is the closing/consolidation of excess schools.  

The Fairbanks North Star Borough School District did just that when it decided to close three elementary schools for the current school year.  It estimated a cost savings of about $1 million per school. 

On the other hand, the Anchorage School District estimates only about half a million dollars to close one elementary school.

The district states that today it has 18 schools operating at less than 65% capacity. According to the latest Capital Improvement Plan, 16 of these are elementary schools. 

And the number of elementary students is projected to decrease more than 2,500 by the 2027/28 school year.

Add to this a bigger issue—are these the only schools with less than 65% capacity? And how does the district compute school capacity?

One thing for sure, the district does not use the State’s specification of 114 square feet/student for calculating elementary school capacity.  Instead, it uses its own specification called “Program Capacity.”

Through this Program Capacity, the district has changed the school capacity metric at least twice during the past 12 years.

As an example, using the State’s specification for Kincaid, Russian Jack and Lake Hood Elementary Schools, each would have a capacity of 536 students. Using the ASD “Program Capacity,” Kincaid would have room for 484 students, Russian Jack would accommodate 399 students, and Lake Hood would hold 515 students.

The total difference is 210 fewer students using the district’s specifications versus the state’s specifications.

By using its own specification, the district has manipulated the data to show that schools are at higher student occupancy rates when there is really excess capacity.

Using Inlet View Elementary School as an example, here is how the district changed its specification over the years. All these data are from the ASD Capital Improvement Program documents. Note there were no substantial changes to the building itself to increase square footage.  The building did not shrink.

Inlet View Elementary School Capacity

            Year                Student Capacity

            2011                           235

            2013                           243

            2014                           271

            2015                           271

            2016                           233

            2017                           170

            2022                           170

However, even the district’s data show that there is extra space, i.e., buildings, that either need to be closed or repurposed.  In the case of Inlet View ES, there are several nearby schools with unused capacity.  Here is a map showing how the Inlet View students could be transferred to nearby schools (the percentages are the district’s capacities):

The school district could save monies and at the same time increase the teachers in other schools to meet those students’ needs. If this is true for Inlet View ES, then the significant change in student capacity may be true for other elementary schools. 

But the school board, in defiance of Anchorage voters, is unnecessarily considering building a new Inlet View school.  Anchorage voters said “no” to this on last year’s ASD bond issue.

Here is a list of the 16 elementary schools with ASD Program Capacity (2022 Capital Improvement Plan) and the State Capacity (114 sq ft/student):

SCHOOLASD CAPACITY (%)STATE CAPACITY (%)
Abbott Loop             65              49
Aurora             58              49
Baxter             49              39
Birchwood ABC             51              48
Eagle River             55              51
Fairview             62              51
Fire Lake             57              54
Homestead             55              60
Kasuun             61              53
Lake Hood             56              53
Mirror Lake             58             —–
Mt View             65              60
Nunaka Valley             58              49
Orion             49              34
Russian Jack             59              51
Wonder Park             55              58

The above State capacities do not make allowances for supplemental capacities but only show the State’s basic square foot allowance per elementary student. 

It gets worse. 

The total “Program Capacity” for elementary schools today would hold 26,432 students. The actual number of students in 2022 was 19,484, a nearly 7,000 student excess capacity.  

There is even a further downward trend in the future until the projected number of elementary students is 16,826 in 2027, nearly 10,000 students fewer than the district’s capacity.

Language immersion, ABC curriculum (Birchwood Elementary School), and the Ignite programs are much more important than the building infrastructure.

It will be difficult for the board to withstand the pressures of the various community interests. But the excess infrastructure needs to be closed/repurposed so revenue can be focused on the classroom—where education happens.

This would benefit the community, especially the students.

David Boyle is an education writer for Must Read Alaska. He is former executive director of the Alaska Policy Forum.

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41 COMMENTS

    • I bet the last two years of people seeing what their kids are being taught means there will be less students because of home schooling as well. They need to close schools not build new ones. But it is free money, in their eyes at least so why not try and build.

  1. See why babies and family lives are important infrastructure
    pieces. Perfect timing for assembly unlucky #13 and Mayor. Asd has some buildings it don’t need, while the assembly and mayor face an
    increasing homeless body count.

    • “…….Asd has some buildings it don’t need, while the assembly and mayor face an
      increasing homeless body count………”
      True, but fill an elementary school with homeless addicts, alcoholics, and mentally ill, and watch the neighborhood rise in opposition, and you can’t blame them.

      • How does that differ from the Assembly’s plan to put the homeless in the Golden Lion, the Sockeye, the old AK Club on Tutor, etc…etc… etc…?
        The Assembly will just ignore the public and do what they want to anyway.

  2. This all goes to show that the issue with ASD is really mismanagement of their budget and poor planning and foresight. Why worry if they can just ask for more money and it usually comes their way. No accountability whatsoever. And unfortunately, the bums who keep pushing these policies keep getting re-elected so there we go.

  3. And people still vote for the same school board members. They cannot balance the check book ever just ask for more. Well there needs to be an overhaul of the lousy board. Spend Covid money on people not infrastructure and change the Curriculum so home school is a better option for many. Also people leaving because no future here with the state shut down by out of staters and government. Bottom line cut the school budget by 40% would be a good start to weed out the admin waste.

    • You are right about the money and the school budget. The head shed is stuffed to the gills with overpaid people who would better serve if they were in the classroom as it would help reduce class sizes, The district needs to stop jumping on the latest curriculum bandwagon. They need to go back to the basics instead of all the SEL garbage that does not teach kids what they need to know to survive in this world. Also, discipline needs to come down hard and fast to keep the kids in line and teach them to respect their elders and behave. Parents need to be held accountable for their kid’s behavior. People need to learn they are not entitled to anything and discipline never hurt anyone.

    • Unfortunately any budget reduction won’t reduce any administrative bureaucrat while further reduction of any remaining school programs (music, phys ed) will continue along with the erosion of the remaining basic curriculum.

  4. Schools that are first to get mothballed are probably the same ones that’ll be the first ones to have urinals placed in the girls bathroom…..
    A few of the ones that are being spared have many major construction/maintenance issues.

  5. They must be dumbing down as much as the students. The ASD used to be able to ‘find’ a million or two stuffed in a closet or drawer when they were pushed into a budget crunch.

  6. Well the board should be removed for disregarding the voters denying a school to be built. They need to do a lot of cutting. Starting at Boniface and Northern Lights, then move through the departments and cut waste. Close the schools that need to be closed and quit using new math to play games with everyone. Also why is there always maintenance bonds, don’t we have those people in the district employed already. Well if there not maintaining then we don’t need them.

  7. Under Dunleavy the Alaska population has declined by 20,000 people. The exodus will likely continue if our leaders don’t have a well considered plan to unlock Alaska resources so we can have affordable natural gas, and good paying jobs.

    The Fairbanks North Star Borough School District was playing the same games as ASD. They refused to use state capacity numbers and invented their own- so there were plenty of half empty schools burdening property taxpayers. ASD is now going to prolong the inevitable school closures if the School Board is not held to account.

    • First without lease sales and putting ANWR off limits no further exploration, thank the Feds under Biden for that.
      Second no funding from major banks, who decided that drilling in the arctic is not a “politically correct” project to underwrite, thank the climate changers for that.
      Finally all those wonderful legislators, who every session demand higher oil taxes, to feed an evermore greedy and burgeoning government, thank them as well.
      People leaving the state because we have a hostile federal, banking and legislature environment doesn’t explain why the school districts fudge the numbers. They came up with that all on their own. This is to hide the mismanagement and shield the bureaucrats. If you consolidate schools, you will have enough teachers and support personnel to run them well, but way too many paper-pushing, program-managing bureaucrats, who are demanding to continue to be employed even though “their school/s” closed. I suppose you can thank the unions, who don’t care if your child gets a decent education. Their focus is solely to increase or maintain membership dues, who then fund the campaigns of all those school board members…….

    • Well you tell me how your going to create jobs with the current politicians. You would have no luck and people would still move.

    • So the school district proposes to close schools and they get blamed for suggesting it? This article is putting a skewed spin on lower enrolment.

  8. Under Carol Comeau, there was no school project unfunded, and she built tons of space for a dwindling population. Now, we can’t support all of these extra buildings, and should be selling them off instead of talking about building new. My son went to Inlet View, and there isn’t a single thing wrong with that building. Notice also that studies have shown that smaller class sizes do not result in better student outcomes, so the 24 students per teacher number is nonsense as well. How on earth did we ever learn anything in classes with more than 30 students, one teacher, and the same books used for 10 years in a row? Gee, I wonder how. The time has come to hold the school board’s feet to the fire and squeeze the nonsense out of half-empty schools, layers and layers of administrators, and spoiled teachers who do not teach what students need to know.

    • One thing that has changed significantly is behavior and discipline. That is why you could have 30 kids in a class with old textbooks and still have the kids learn. Now with 30 or more, you spend more time dealing with poor behavior and the lack of discipline both in school and especially in the home makes it worse.

    • I disagree about the negative view of Carol Comeau. Plus that was 4 superintendents ago. But, please go teach and show how it’s done.

  9. ONLY people (ex-teachers & admin) backed by our State NEA union (whatever it’s called) are elected to the school board. That’s the problem.
    If you are not AK Teacher Union endorsed, you will not get ALL the other unions behind you (& their $) and you have no chance of winning.
    These so called liberals, NEVER consider backing an Alaska native or any other minority for that matter.
    They are a closed club of white (supposed) liberals looking out for themselves.
    They could care less about budgets & efficiency.
    Right now, the Native Charter School (anyone can attend) is having to raise it’s own money to build or buy a building to get their program out of the pathetic dumps the school district keeps putting them in (one was an old furniture store on Muldoon, w/ a dangerous flat roof)
    This board cares about pay, bennies & retirement (which we send to them ‘outside’ after they retire & move south.

      • Ann, why doesn’t the ASD provide buildings for the charter schools? The charter schools are part of the ASD, right? BTW, why doesn’t the ASD provide transportation to charter school students as it gets State funding for transporting charter school students? It seems as if the ASD treats charter school students as second-class students. Where is the Equity?

  10. Too much money going to Special Ed and the other poor and needy programs. Meanwhile kids who have a future get the short end of the stick. Gonna have to raise taxes… Oh… Whoops we don’t have any…

    • Our taxes for schools are paid through our property taxes and are you saying we don’t have taxes. Renters pay taxes through their raised rents. Whenever they raise taxes our rent is raised.

    • The Anchorage schools have hidden “slush funds” hidden scattered all over the district, for whatever they desire to do. Remember several years ago 2018-9(?) when their budget didn’t get passed, 2 months later(?), they “found”? the money to cover their wishes.

    • A lot of funds for Sped go directly to the general fund and not always directly to Sped. Fun fact. State law about funding.

      • Ann, you are correct, the special ed funding is not earmarked for special ed students. This is a particular concern for the intensive needs students that the ASD gets 13 times the BSA for–about $78,000. How much of that goes to each intensive needs student? Should it?

  11. They can probably save millions by reducing administrative staff and getting rid of a bunch of Vice Principals. Exactly how many vice principals does a school need anyway?

    • Except union dues and enrollment is now optional because of the Janus decision in 2018 I think it was, so now unions have to actually work FOR employees if they want them to pay dues. Also the union still has to represent non dues paying employees and they get the same representation and pay raises.

      In other words it doesn’t matter because they dont have to pay dues unless they want to

  12. ASD is a very top-heavy organization, used to an unlimited and unopposed budget but now due to parents paying more attention than in the past, they find themselves with more employees than students and are struggling. In a real business, the employer is forced to layoffs when business decreases. But these people are going to ride the free pony until it drops. It has little to do with the best interests of the children. It’s about saving their fat paychecks.

    • ASD made heavy admin cuts during Superintendany Browders reign. He was there 2 superintendents ago. Cuts have continued since him.

  13. What a turn of events for Inlet View in the past calendar year:
    1) Propose $111 million for new school construction (funds include various upgrades to other schools).
    2) Bonds fail at the ballot box
    3) Close those school.

    What a planning/budgeting mess, imagine if that package was green-lit by the public earlier this year.

    Are we still looking for homeless refuge? Or would this location stir up a public “reeeee” like we saw at Martha’s Vineyard?

  14. You know, this is absurd. Hear me out. A school consists of staff and the building/utilities. These are relatively stable costs from year to year regardless of how many students attend that school.

    You might ask, what about text books and supplies? I recall, throughout my public school years, using used text books from the previous years. I recall this year being ordered to buy a bunch of supplies for my kids & to share with other kids. I also recall it being possible for kids to work in the cafeteria for either $ or food.

    Even with all that, there were after school sports and class field trips.

    So… what is the issue today? From what I can see, ASD is purchasing whacked out SEL stuff. They have dept. of Woke marxism called, ‘the office of equity and compliance’, that has who knows how many staff assigned to it. There is seemingly endless testing to verify, apparently, that ASD is still unable to teach 70% of their students properly. And, it just came out, the ASD library has been purchasing grooming books aimed at pulling kids in to the sex change barbarity.

    ASD surely has problems but money is the least of them.

  15. Bottom line, ASD isn’t going to give up any space they have. They may repurpose it into PRE-K (which is essentially federally paid for day care) or turn it over to the city for some other use (homeless center, adult education etc). They will shuffle things around and realign schools / enrollment etc and it will make people angry and it will take 2 years I bet. Teachers are retiring as fast as they can so the staff layoffs wont be terrible overall, if at all.

    I think they should pull all the special ed out of regular schools and make “Intensive Needs Elementary” schools, if legally allowed to. It would serve 2 purposes #1 have spaces designed specifically to tend to the Special Education environment and student needs, and free up even more room in the existing schools. This would allow better consolidation of existing space and possibly be able to close more schools. All while allowing them to shift resources and possibly push up test scores that have been dropping

    The other issues you will see is parents not wanting their kids to go to “certain” schools that have lower enrollment and the continuing bussing situation because, lets face it no one wants to be a bus driver.

  16. The community needs to help prioritize what they want. Maybe some immersion schools are good but maybe not all. Some buildings need to go and are requiring repairs that are not cost effective right now. (Abbott Loop)

    Maybe the reason Fairbanks and Anchorage have adjusted the square footage is because is because the state formula doesn’t make sense in all settings for all purposes. The room size would matter more to me than the building square footage or how big the hallways are. Wahts taught in the space matters to determine space needed.

    Lastly, parents and community members need to be partners in education. It’s important. Always has been.

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