Nationwide, school districts are closing schools and laying off teachers in great numbers as part of sweeping budget cuts. Children in Philadelphia and Chicago have seen many of their schools shuttered and are now forced to commute longer distances, sometimes through dangerous gang territories, to reach the schools that remain open.
The Anchorage School District just announced the latest round of austerity measures, including plans to cut 219 positions (administration, support staff and classroom teachers) for the next school year. The plan includes laying off 159 teachers: forty-seven from elementary schools, thirty-five from middle schools and thirty-three from high schools and alternative schools. Another forty-four positions are being terminated because of a projected decline in enrollment.
Over the past four years, the district has reduced its work force by about 419 positions, not including the newly announced cuts. District administrators are working with a $566 million operating budget for the 2014–15 school year, $23 million short of the funds the district says it needs.
And the budget shortfall is likely to worsen, with an estimated budget gap of $9 million in the 2015-2016 school year, Alaska Dispatch reports, adding that the district’s money troubles allegedly stem from flat funding and rising healthcare costs.
Funding shortfalls have been the new norm the past five years. A $25 million budget deficit for the current school year was closed by spending some of the district’s budget reserves and making cuts to support staff and classroom supplies. Teaching positions were not included in the cuts for the 2012-2013 school year.
District officials blame active medical and retiree medical expenses for bleeding the district dry.
“It’s not uncommon for employees’ health care costs to see increases in the double-digit percentages on an annual basis,” Mark Foster, the district’s chief financial officer said. In order to compensate for exploding healthcare costs, the district is asking employee unions to pay even higher portions of the cost.
Alaska Dispatch notes that, while Governor Parnell is quick to boast about the strong state of Alaska’s economy and tout state plans to invest in a gas pipeline project, he fails to mention the billion-dollar deficits the state faces, and the tax system that previously “plowed billion-dollar surpluses from oil production taxes into the treasury.”