Assembly approves preliminary 2016-17 school budget

Four members question if further costs saving could exist
Wednesday, March 23, 2016 - 09:34

As early voting has begun in this year’s municipal election, the Anchorage Assembly paved the way for mail-in voting to be the main methodology for elections beginning in 2017.

As part of a lengthy agenda Tuesday night, the Assembly voted 9 to 2 in favor of an ordinance giving marching orders for mainly mail-in elections for the future.

The move is in line with trends in the Lower 48 states in which numerous states and counties have opted for mail-in voting that facilitates the closing of most site-based polling places.

Cost-saving and voter convenience have been cited by Lower 48 governments in regards to the trend.

As per Tuesday’s night’s passed ordinance, Anchorage city voters will be able to vote via affixing a first class stamp to an envelope containing their completed ballot in 2017 or deposit their completed ballot in secured drop boxes expected to be stationed in various locations across the Municipality.

For voters preferring the traditional polling place, the just-passed municipal ordinance does allow for a few accessible voting centers. The number of these still would be significantly fewer than the current 122 polling place offered in each of the Municipality’s 122 polling precincts.

Assemblyman Ernie Hall is chair of the Assembly’s elections committee.

He asserted at Tuesday night’s meeting that mail-in voting allows voters additional time to become familiar with the various issues contained on each ballot.

“I think this is the future,” Hall said, also citing Lower 48 moves toward mail-in only voting.

For this year’s April 5 election, polling places will be open in each precinct as is tradition. Voters registered in the Chugiak-Eagle River area may take advantage of early voting being held at the Chugiak-Eagle River Senior Center beginning Monday, March 28 until April 4 on weekdays from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. It offers the same ballots as are available on April 5 at area polling places are available for early voting at the senior center, which is located at 22424 N. Birchwood Loop across from Chugiak Elementary School.

Municipal moves toward the mail-in election were already underway as early as last year. In December, the Assembly gave permission to the clerk’s office to begin voter education and outreach regarding the new voting method. In Feb. of this year, the Assembly approved a $300,000 contract with a non-governmental firm to manage transition to the project including the purchase of new equipment to count votes and an informational campaign to educate Anchorage voters.

In other Assembly news, members gave approval for the Anchorage School District’s proposed 2016-17 budget. The vote was not unanimous –it passed by a vote of 7 to 4 with both of the local area’s representatives – Amy Demboski and Bill Starr – joining Bill Evans and Jennifer Johnston of Anchorage in voting against the proposed budget that includes the reduction of 49 teaching staff.

School district number crunchers began work on the budget for the coming school year, that begins this summer, back in October and November of 2015. At that time, the projection of an $11 million budget gap was used to formulate the district’s next budget. Since then, that gap has shortened to approximately $6 million, explained Mark Foster, the district’s chief financial officer.

“After the initial budget process began, we began updating all of the district’s projections based on expenses and revenue,” Foster explained, noting changes in heating and medical costs as well as more expensive, more highly-paid teachers retiring and being replaced by less experienced teachers incoming at lower positions on the district’s pay chart. “The combination of all of these things reduced that gap to $6 million.”

In the past couple months as the district grappled with the budget for the coming school year while waiting for final word –which as of Wednesday morning – has yet to come from the state Legislature regarding its intended funding for public schools, the ASD used the $11 million figure in public discussion of what its budget gurus needed to achieve in terms of spending reductions.

Demboski noted the $6 million figure and asked Ed Graff, ASD superintendent, to explain the change.

In a move to lighten the meeting’s ominous tone based on the difficult fiscal situation the state, municipal and school district face due to declined oil revenues, Demboski openly joked with Graff saying, “Hey, certainly the teacher in you wants to say, ‘that’s a good question.’”

Graff complied quickly replied with a huge grin before turning the microphone over to Foster, “That’s a good question, Ms. Demboski.”

It represented one of the lighter moments as assembly members discussed the coming school budget.

In discussion prior to voting on the school budget, Evans announced he would vote against the proposal stating he seeks a “revolution” in education and nothing in the 2016-17 preliminary school district budget seems to represent such.

“I cannot vote in favor of a school district budget that is hundreds of millions of dollars of institutionalized mediocracy,” Evans said.

Johnston questioned if the district could reduce its spending by combining forces with the municipality for building maintenance and custodial services.

Demboski also questioned Graff regarding the 49 teaching positions currently on the district’s budget chopping block.

“How many of these 49 positions represent pink slips?” she asked.

Graff’s answer to Demboski remained consistent with what he has said at school board meetings during the district’s budgetary process: most likely none due to attrition, but we won’t know for sure until answers to other factors are known.

Those factors include teacher retirements at the end of the current school year and student enrollment at the district’s various schools that will determine the needed teaching staff at each location.

Assemblyman Paul Honeman – who voted in favor of the school budget along with Patrick Flynn, Elvi Gray-Jackson, Hall, Pete Petersen, Tim Steele and Dick Traini – also asked Graff about the 49 teaching positions. His question centered on the dollar amount those positions represent: approximately $5 million.

“So, to keep those positions, the district would need an additional $5 million?” Honeman asked.

Graff’s reply: “Yes.”

School district officials receive sympathetic comments from Steele – a former school board member – who also grappled with education budgets during his service on the district’s board.

“Teachers know how to teach. Administrators know how to administer. It is always the money that gets in the way,” Steele said.

Connect with Amy Armstrong via email at [email protected] or online at www.facebook.com/pages/Armstrong-Communications-Words-by-Amy-Marie.

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