Facing a dramatic and continuing decline in student enrollment, the Fairbanks North Star Borough School District voted earlier this month to shutter three elementary schools. Now, it is set to eliminate nearly 70 full-time teacher positions for next year.
Chief School Administrator Karen Melin presented the district’s “Reduction in Force Plan” at the Feb. 15 school board meeting. This plan is now before the board for adoption at its March 1 meeting.
According to Melin’s report, the district has seen a dramatic drop in student enrollment, losing roughly 2,000 students from 2019-2020 to 2020-2021. Over that span the district went from 13,233 students to 11,271.
While this reduction might be partly explained by Covid concerns, the enrollment only rebounded to 12,267 in fiscal year 2022. That’s nearly a thousand less students from two years prior. The district’s projected enrollment for next year is just 12,191.
Many students in Fairbanks and around the state have left traditional public schools in favor of homeschooling and private or religious education. Several curriculum controversies have erupted in the Fairbanks School District over the past two years as educators have pushed radical LGBTQ themes and objectionable sex education curriculum.
It is difficult to pinpoint exactly where all the students have gone, but the Fairbanks District’s publicly-funded homeschool program has increased from 287 to students to 743 over the last two years in which data is available. Many other students may have opted for other statewide homeschool programs, independent homeschooling or private education.
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Since education funding is tied to student enrollment, the district is now forced to find cuts in order to operate under budget.
In fiscal year 2021, Fairbanks expects to lose approximately $7.4 million in state funding and another $2.1 million in federal revenue due to declining student population.
The district is attempting to mitigate these loses by asking the Fairbanks Borough Assembly to increase local borough spending on public schools by $2 million next year, for a total of $51.4 million. The Assembly won’t make a decision on this request until May.
While the district has lost state and federal education money, it did gain more than $34 million in federal Covid relief funds, $15 million of which is still available for fiscal year 2023.
The district plans to send a recommended budget to the Borough Assembly by April 1. Following budgetary action from both the Alaska Legislature and the Assembly, the school board will approve a final budget by the end of June. The board’s final budget will determine overall staffing and provide direction to the district’s administration with regard to program priorities and staff cuts.