We all want our kids to have the best chance of success in life. Anchorage’s public schools play a vital role in that outcome. Unfortunately, we are hobbling our kids’ academic opportunities by allocating far too many of our nation-leading education dollars to facilities. We continue to see the emphasis placed on buildings, not educational outcomes.

I first became aware of this a few years ago when the current Clark Middle School building was constructed. The per-square-foot cost of the new middle school exceeded the per-square-foot cost of the Anchorage VA Medical Center which was built around the same time. How is that possible? At that time, the justification was that the fancy school facility was needed in order to improve student outcomes. Here we are, a dozen years later, still waiting for those promised outcomes.

Perhaps these actions would make sense if our student population was rapidly growing, but it’s not. Anchorage School District (ASD) enrollment peaked 20 years ago at about 50,000 thousand students. Fall 2021 enrollment for ASD  was below 40,000 (when accounting for charter school enrollment). The last time ASD had fewer than 40,000 kids in ASD school buildings was 39 years ago – in 1983. Current ASD demographic projections indicate this trend will continue for some time. In fact, the latest ASD Capital Improvement Plan expects enrollment will drop by another 5,000 students by 2027.

With the rapid drop in student enrollment over the last 20 years, you might think there would be a corresponding drop in facilities, but you would be wrong. Unexplainably, the opposite has happened. Since 1983, the last time we had so few students, the total size of ASD facilities has grown by 49.2%, a whopping 2.6 million square feet of extra space. Using a conservative number of $25 a square foot annually for heat, light and maintenance, the additional space costs $65 million a year. When the extra cost of principal and interest are included for this added footprint, the total additional cost to Anchorage residents is around $95 million a year.

Why are Anchorage residents footing a $95 million dollar bill for unneeded space, when student educational outcomes desperately need improvement? Alaska is ranked dead last in the U.S. in national reading scores for both low-income and upper/middle-income students. And before you think that the rest of the state is dragging ASD scores down, guess again. ASD is ranked 22nd in the state in language arts out of 54 school districts.

Imagine what could happen if that $95 million dollars in facilities costs (which amounts to more than $2,000 per student, or a $34,000 raise per classroom teacher with ASD average class sizes of 17 students per teacher) was redirected every year to improve student outcomes by retaining and attracting top teaching talent. ASD’s Proposition 1 facilities bond mailer includes the tagline “All of Our Children.” It’s time for ASD to focus on the “Children” by spending more money in the classroom and not on fancy spacious buildings. Join me in voting No on Proposition 1.

The views expressed here are those of the author.

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Vote NO on Anchorage school bonds: Focus must be students, not buildings

Jodi Taylor
Jodi Taylor is the Board Chair for Alaska Policy Forum, she and her husband are the parents of six children. She's a business owner, and finds joy in serving to create an environment where families can thrive.