Anchorage schools begin with a rocky start

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) – Wednesday morning several teachers at Denali Montessori Elementary sat on wooden benches, spending their final hours before school begins training for a busy week ahead.

Laminated ‘happy birthday!’ signs and positive affirmations were being posted on the walls.

Everyone was busy preparing for a hectic first day back at school that begins in Anchorage on Thursday morning.

“The energy is high. The optimism is high,” Anchorage School District Superintendent Jharrett Bryantt said. “This yearning to have some sense of normalcy is through the roof.”

But the school year is already starting off anything but normal. Wednesday morning, Bryantt was interviewed about his goals for this upcoming year, which will be his first as the head of the district. Already, Bryantt has concerns about the budget and teacher retention. His priority for right now, he says, is fixing the bus driver shortage.

ASD announced last week that thousands of students won’t have bus service for more than a month. It’s a dire situation seen across the country as districts scramble to fill a driver shortage.

“Be patient with us, there is light at the end of this tunnel,” Bryantt said Wednesday morning in the library at Denali Montessori.

Bryantt said more than 50 new bus drivers will soon be driving for the district, however, he said that still won’t be enough. The bus driver shortage is also affecting bus routes at the Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District. He says some parents have started carpools and special education students will still receive continuous service.

Bryantt says parents should call their student’s school principal and the district may be able to provide gas cards and free city bus passes.

“In some communities, the most logical thing might be to join a carpool. It might be to take us on our offer, with regards to gas cards. It might be advice on how to leverage our free bus pass program that we have for secondary students,” Bryantt said. “We’re looking to expand that potentially to elementary schools, those would be the city buses.”

Regarding the school budget, Bryantt says it’s possible the deficit could be $60 to $100 million.

“In terms of the budget we’re in a dire situation at ASD,” Bryantt said.

What that means, Bryantt said, is possible cuts and closings of schools.

“If it’s not about talented educators in the classroom, if it’s not about talented leaders in the schools, then it can probably be on the table to be re-evaluated,” Bryantt said.

He went on to say that he will leave “no stone unturned when it comes to this financial deficit.”

Another major issue facing the district is teacher retention. Bryantt said that on average, Alaska graduates about 200 teachers a year — far below what is needed — which means looking outside for additional help. He says he’d like to see a ‘grow your own’ program that would look at retention strategies. One idea would be to provide some college tuition. He says he has concerns about filling teacher positions in the future.

“Alaska could be a revolving door of educators who come here, get trained here, and realize that ‘if I’m going to be a teacher for the long haul, I better pursue a place that’s going to give me defined benefits, so I can have some assurance of life after my career,’” Bryantt said.

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