School board opts to include educational impacts in capacity study

Thursday, March 10, 2016 - 11:13
  • Allison Kirksey, a second grade student at Eagle River Elementary School, shows off her favorite book, “Camp Ghost-Away,” from the Pee Wee Scouts series. She was dressed as Cinderella and not Elsa from Frozen to honor the fact that the story of Cinderella is the first one in the book of fairy tales her class is reading. Kirksey and many other students plus staff and teachers dressed up as their favorite book characters as a not to last week’s National Read Across America day honoring the literary work of Dr. Seuss. PHOTO BY AMY ARMSTRONG FOR THE STAR

The Anchorage School Board unanimously decided that educational outcomes and not just cost savings are to be considered as administration conducts a district-wide study of building capacity.

The move could look like a bit of back pedal as board members and administration officials respond to community backlash regarding last fall’s discussion that three of the district’s aging schools – Central Middle School, Inlet View Elementary and Gruening Middle School – might represent too much expense to rehab considering the fact that nearby schools are nowhere near full capacity.

If one listened just to the public testimony at Monday night’s meeting, the conclusion that the school board had already decided to close certain schools might be an easy one to make. Numerous parents and teachers from Inlet View testified against closure and testimony against closing Central and Gruening was presented by a couple of people.

Board member Eric Croft said that contrary to public perception, the school board currently is not planning to close any of the schools in the district.

“There is nothing in what we are voting on tonight that targets any particular school for closing,” Croft said during Monday night’s board discussion of ASD Memorandum #200 with the subject line: Resolution on Capital Improvement Planning. “I am not trying to pretend that there are not dangers out there for particular schools but when we met with the PTAs from Inlet View and Central, they were adamant that if there was going to be process of closing schools, then it should be a process that is across the district. Nobody wants to have a discussion that involves only one solution.”

Last fall, the school board set a goal of having each of its buildings being used at a 90 to 100 percent capacity rate. Most elementary schools are currently close to that target, district officials indicate. Many middle schools and high schools – including ones located in the Chugiak-Eagle River area – are not.

In what was labeled, a cost savings measure, the school board opted to remove the request for remodeling funding for GMS from its 2016 bonds package, which is being presented to municipal voters on April 5.

This action stirred up a hornet’s nest of discussion in the local area as the suggestion that the current GMS building on Lee Street could close and the GMS school community be relocated to the current facility hosting Eagle River High School which would combine with Chugiak High School –which is only 56 percent full according to district numbers – at its current location.

None of this has been set in motion, but locals tuned in to the education world have repeatedly expressed disapproval.

The Star incorrectly stated that the Anchorage School Board approved spending $45,000 on an informational campaign regarding the 2016 school bonds proposal included in the April 5 municipal election. As per Heidi Embley, ASD chief communications officer, the board did not need to give approval for the $45,000. Rather it was listed as an informational item for the board members.

That includes Karl von Luhrte, first vice president of the South Fork Community Council, who testified Monday night during public comment.

“The administration, staff and teachers at Eagle River High School have done an incredible job of taking a young school – it is the newest high school in the district – to the top of the charts as is seen in the most recent stats released ranking ERHS is one of the highest performing high schools – if the not, the top high school – in this district in terms of academic achievement,” von Luhrte said. “Do not close the district’s highest performing school.”

Board members re-asserted that they are far from beginning a school closure process.

Instead, they say they want a comprehensive study conducted in an open and transparent manner that provides them with complete information regarding capacity.

The board initially asked for the study to be complete by Dec. 2016.

Elisa Snelling, a board member from Eagle River, made an amendment that was approved upping timeline to Nov. 2016.

“I want to have this information in hand and available for the 2017 bond process which begins in November,” she said.

Heidi Embley, the district’s chief communications officer, said administration is yet to identify who will head up the capacity study and what the expected cost for conducting the study will be.

“I don’t think we have that figured out since the board just directed us tonight to do it,” Embley wrote in an email to The Star during Monday night’s meeting.

Marty Lang and Dave Legg, principals at Eagle River and Chugiak High were in attendance at Monday night’s school board meeting, but neither spoke during the public testimony section of the meeting. Rather, they sat more toward the back of the room in the second to the last row of the more comfortable chairs before the offering of folding chairs.

In the past few months, both have spoken publicly against the notion of combining the two schools. Both note that any recent study of available developable land in the Municipality of Anchorage points toward the bulk of growth occurring the Chugiak-Eagle River area.

In another board action, approval was given for a $45,000 impartial information campaign for the upcoming school bonds in the April municipal election.

It represents a $15,000 decrease from the $60,000 spent to “inform” voters about the previous bond package.

“We’re using a variety of efforts to get out impartial information to the local taxpayers so they can make an informed vote on the bond proposal,” Embley wrote in another email to The Star during the meeting.

The $45,000 includes the following breakdown: $7,000 for print, $10,000 for radio, $17,000 for online and $10,000 for direct mail.

The school bond included in the April 5 municipal election requests $49.3 million – nearly $5 million of that slated for improvements to local schools.

The bulk of that $5 million is $4.1 million for CHS to replace portions of the heating system – some of it that dates back to 1985 – as well as replacing water heating systems and heating coils.

Installation of IP security cameras to replace analog closed circuit televisions cameras currently in use at CHS, ERHS, Mirror Lake Middle School and Birchwood ABC and Chugiak elementary schools is included in the 2016 bonds package. The cost for each is as follows:

ERHS: $210,000

MLMS: $279,000

Birchwood and Chugiak elementary schools: $63,000 each.

The security camera upgrades at ERHS and MLMS are higher due to planned expansion of the current systems.

The $211,000 Homestead Elementary portion of the bond would pay for replacing the school’s back-up generator, five perimeter cabinet heaters and classroom ventilators that district maintenance has identified as being beyond the “expected useful life.”

The April 2016 bond package is also part of the belt-tightening reality for the district based on the state of Alaska’s five-year moratorium on school bond reimbursement which began on Jan. 1, 2015. Prior to the moratorium, the ASD routinely received reimbursements totaling 60 to 70 percent of school bonds. It made the passage of larger bond packages an easier sell to Anchorage voters.

Should this bond package be approved, Anchorage taxpayers are responsible for every last cent. The ASD’s chief financial officer, Mark Foster, said in Dec. 2015 that a property tax increase of $11.55 per $100,000 of assessed property value is the price tag.

Bond proposal information on the district’s website currently lists the cost to municipal property owners at $10.86 per $100,000 assessed value.

According to district number crunchers, if approved, the 2016 bond is $9 million below the amount of debt the district will retire in 2016 representing a .02 decline in the local mill rate.

Under municipal regulation, school bonds must pass by a simple majority or 50.1 percent or greater margin with voters. In April 2015, Anchorage voters approved a $59.3 million bond package by 53 percent.

Learn more about the ASD 2016 bonds package online at


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