Bait & Switch: Does Anchorage School District Need 3 New Schools?

by Dave Donley

This communication is from Dave Donley as an individual and not on behalf of the Anchorage School District or School Board or any appointed or military position he may hold.

State law requires Alaska school districts to have a six-year capital plan – that includes major maintenance projects such as new roofs, large remodeling projects and new schools.

The Anchorage School District (ASD) administration reports that the ASD has a maintenance backlog of about $800 million.  For years before the 2018 Earthquake, the Anchorage School Board had a formal policy to maximize the coverage of new bond funds, by prioritizing needed remodeling and roof replacements rather than building new replacement schools.  School Board members were told that policy needed to be repealed to do the needed earthquake repairs and the Board did so.  Now it seems possibly that wasn’t all that was really intended by that policy repeal.

A newly proposed Six Year Capital Plan (SYCP) proposes bonding to tear down three existing elementary schools and replace them with three new schools at a total cost of close to $100 million.  The three schools are Inlet View, Wonder Park, and Tudor Elementary.  The first of these is Inlet View and the School Board is deciding, at the November 16 meeting, if it is on the 2022 School Bond.

This comes at a time when over the past five years the ASD student population has dropped from almost 50,000 to this year’s projected 42,800.    Wonder Park is currently about 58 percent occupied and Tudor is at 70 percent.  In 2020, Inlet View design costs was combined with the earthquake repair projects bond by a 4-3 Board vote. In the 1980-90s the District had proposed to close Inlet View.  Now Inlet View absolutely needs at least a major remodel costing about $15-20 million but possibly more.  The new school has a total price tag of over $30 million and seems to be growing.

I strongly support a major remodel project at Inlet View to address existing needs.  These needs include a new sprinkler system, a multipurpose room, relocation of the office to help secure the entrance, some increased capacity, and many other overdue upgrades.  ASD Administration points out if every student in the area went to Inlet View increased capacity would be needed even without the out of area students.  Further they argue that if universal pre-K education was implemented (at a cost of tens of millions just in the Anchorage area) the extra classroom space will be needed.

Prior to several years ago, ASD guidelines indicated Inlet View was essentially at capacity but not overcrowded.  Then the guidelines were changed and pre-pandemic it measured at 120 per cent capacity.  But that is not the full story.  Some 70 of the about 240 students at Inlet View come from outside that school’s boundary area.  The ASD Administration has allowed this despite it creating what is now measured as overcrowding at Inlet View.  I do not support students currently at Inlet View having to go to other schools, but the District should stop allowing new outside area students to go there until capacity is available. Without these additional students Inlet View is not over capacity. There are five schools that border on Inlet View’s boundaries with lower occupancy: Turnagain 69%, Willow Crest 82%, North Star 67%, Denali 78%, and Government Hill 86%.  Also, before just recently Central (less than a mile from Inlet View) was only 70% occupied. Obviously, some very basic phased in (to not impact current students) boundary adjustments could eliminate over-crowding at Inlet View.

It is important to note that the experts explain that sprinkler systems in schools are not a student safety requirement; they are to reduce potential property damage.  All occupied schools are safe, even without sprinkler systems, or they would not have students in them.  Turnagain Elementary is of similar age as Inlet View and was very successfully remodeled just a few years ago.  A similar major remodel at Inlet View is estimated to cost about $15-20 million.  Major remodels are projected to last about 20-30 years while new schools can last 50 years.  The experts are saying that it is more cost effective to tear down Inlet View and build a new school.  Probably true; but spending twice as much for a larger school than needed has immediate lost opportunity costs unless unlimited funds are available.  Remember all these school building costs are now 100 percent on the Anchorage taxpayer as the State no longer reimburses new school construction debt.  Many other schools in Anchorage badly need remodels, new roofs, and security upgrades.  Some of those projects will be delayed to pay for a new Inlet View school.

Inlet View is a great school, and its parents are a great example of how parents can be effective advocates for their students.  Although the Inlet View Community Council, and it seems most of the neighborhood residents, support the total new school plan, some do not.  Quite a few have told the School Board they believe the 2020 bond language’s use of the word “site” meant any new school would be located where the current school is now and not the south end of the current school property as ASD is proposing.  Among other concerns they also question the new school being two stories and the soil conditions at the new proposed southern site.  Concern has also been raised by the District’s Capital Improvement Advisory Committee who declined to adopt a recommendation citing earthquake risk reports: “The reports depict the Inlet View location within the Bootlegger Cove Special Landslide Areas, and thus at risk in a large seismic event.”

The other proposed new schools at Wonder Park, and Tudor are currently significantly under capacity (58% and 70%) and are mostly surrounded by schools currently under 80 percent capacity (and even as low as 57%).

A word about school roofs; even the best commercial roofs only last up to 30 years.  The ASD has over 90 schools and buildings.  That means, no matter how well maintained, in any given two-year cycle about six roofs will need replaced and they are costly.  ASD aggressively maintains existing roofs and is using new technology to make roofs last longer for less cost. But still, every school bond will need a certain number of roof projects on it.

A word about elementary school security; while violent threats to middle and high schools can come from inside, almost all threats to elementary students and staff originate outside the school.  Many of our elementary schools where not designed to meet an external threat.  The administrative offices are not located where they can control the front doors.  The ASD has been bonding to remodel elementary schools all over town to relocate offices, increase door security, and upgrade video monitoring.  Up to $30 million is needed to complete this effort and $16 million was proposed to be on the 2022 bond to continue these projects.  I strongly support prioritizing these projects to protect our most vulnerable students.

Finally, the complex matter of bonded debt retirement; when it comes to debt retirement an old dollar does not equal a new dollar.  For years now the ASD has been retiring more debt than it is adding with new bonds.  But the real value of this decrease to Anchorage taxpayers is being greatly reduced by the loss of State bond reimbursement funding.  ASD is retiring bonds that had up to 50 percent state subsidy with new bonds that are 100 percent paid for by Anchorage taxpayers.  Accordingly, the cost of even the reduced total debt is going up every year as more of the State reimbursed bonds are paid off.  So now the question Anchorage faces is do we want to build three new elementary schools?

–Dave Donley is a parent, an attorney, was born in Anchorage, served 16 years as a State Senator and Representative, and currently is a member of the Anchorage School Board.