FNSB School District headquarters

The Fairbanks North Star Borough School District Administrative Center is seen Wednesday, June 17, 2020, in downtown Fairbanks. Caitlin Miller/News-Miner

The school district is considering cutting 243 jobs to deal with a $27 million budget shortfall, and teachers subject to layoffs will get notices in May.

“It’s the times we are living in,” school board member Chrya Sanderson said at a Monday budget work session of the Fairbanks North Star Borough Board of Education. “We are not going to like any of the things coming our way.”

What’s not coming their way is sustained state funding unless nearly 2,000 students return who left during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Students have trickled in but “the floodgates haven’t opened. That’s for sure,” Superintendent Karen Gaborik told the Board of Education.

Board member April Smith blamed the school district’s reduction in services for the enrollment drop.

About 10,000 students spent all of last fall in remote learning status. In-person classes resumed this year, and the district has expanded its free lunch program to all students, but schools have pulled back on other services. Music and outdoor recess are reduced at elementary schools, and the length of the school day remains shortened by almost two hours. Many students who learn at school continue to receive most of their instruction by computer.

April 1 is the school board’s deadline to provide an approved spending plan for the fiscal year starting July 1 to the Fairbanks North Star Borough Assembly and Mayor.

Gaborik said in a Feb. 23 communication to school district families that “as of right now, the 2021-2022 school year will not include the remote learning option. Education options will be in-person, eLearning or Fairbanks B.E.S.T Homeschool.”

The proposed $221.5 million spending plan for the upcoming school year is down from this year’s budget of $244 million. Gaborik said she asked every administrative department to absorb a 15% reduction, though some did not make that target.

Some of the 243 full-time equivalent positions proposed to be cut are already vacant. The proposal eliminates 100 elementary school teachers and almost 50 middle school and high school teachers. Janitors, kindergarten aides, activities coordinators, special education aides, English language tutors, assistant principals and a safety assistant are also proposed to be cut.

A few dozen school district employees are expected to retire in May, while 20 teachers have put in for a leave of absence next year, according to officials.

The school board touched on the possibility of closing school buildings to save money. Board President Tim Doran discouraged leaders from naming any schools saying it causes premature stress to people who are potentially impacted. 

Board member Jennifer Luke said they need to “right size” the school district. Enrollment has shrunk by about 25% to 11,260 students since 2003.

Education leaders ought to begin the process to close a school now, she said. A demographer could be hired to help.

If a school building is emptied, Luke said she wants to provide it to the district’s B.E.S.T. Homeschool program, which has grown.

“I’d like us to find a way to put B.E.S.T. in one of the buildings, one of the physical schools, just for next year,” she told the school board.

Leaders said another work session should be scheduled to focus on the pros and cons of closing school buildings.

“We need to be clear with the public that this is where we are going by the end of our budget season this year,” Luke said.

Board members also read from emails asking them to reconsider cutting nine elementary instrumental music teachers and nine building maintenance workers.

Retired music teacher Jo Scott wrote about the importance of teaching music in schools and said she still gets letters from students thanking her for bringing music into their lives.

Kelly Koch said reducing the building maintenance department by nine will “put an enormous burden of additional work on employees here.”

“We have been struggling to keep up with the work orders with the present number of personnel,” wrote David Glynn.

Schools will also lose 18 janitors and 18 kindergarten teacher assistants if the cuts are approved.

Contact staff writer Amanda Bohman at 459-7545. Follow her at twitter.com/FDNMborough.