ERHS students stage sit-in to protest proposed budget cuts

Tuesday, March 6, 2018 - 18:22
  • About 600 Eagle River High School students attended a sit-in by walking out of class on March 2 to protest proposed budget cuts that would eliminate a pair of teaching positions. Kali Spencer, Eagle River High School Student Government President, speaks to her fellow students at the sit-in. (Photos by Naomi Klouda for the Star)
  • Kali Spencer, Eagle River High School Student Government President, speaks to her fellow students at a sit-in organized March 2 to protest proposed budget cuts. (Photo by Naomi Klouda for the Star)
  • About 600 Eagle River High School students attended a sit-in by walking out of class on March 2 to protest proposed budget cuts that would eliminate a pair of teaching positions. (Photo by Naomi Klouda for the Star)
  • About 600 Eagle River High School students attended a sit-in by walking out of class on March 2 to protest proposed budget cuts that would eliminate a pair of teaching positions. (Photo by Naomi Klouda for the Star)

Eagle River High School students wanted to get a message to the Alaska Legislature, but they didn’t feel a mere letter would cut it.

Promptly at 11:45 a.m. March 2, the Eagle River High school students walked out of class to orchestrate a school sit-in. Similar to a walkout, the students were protesting budget cuts ahead in the Anchorage School District due to cuts or flat funding on the state level.

“You say cut back, we say fight back,” read one sign.

“I am an investment, not an expense,” and “Kiss my class goodbye,” read two more.

“Our school is the smallest comprehensive high school in the district housing less than 900 students with about 50 staff members,” said Gabriella Schilling, one of the organizers, prior to the event.

A proposal to cut two teachers — one in computer aid drafting and another in foreign language instruction — would disproportionately impact the smaller high school, she said.

Student Government co-President Kali Spencer took to the mic before the 600 or so students to talk about three planks to their plea: Increasing the base student allocation, or BSA by $100 per student; fully fund buses so that money doesn’t leave the classroom to pay for transportation, and restore bond debt reimbursement, which was reduced by the Legislature from 70 percent to 50 or 40 percent in 2017, depending on the school construction project.

The BSA has been flat for three years, now going into fiscal year 2019, which begins July 1.

The Eagle River student request aligns with what the Anchorage School District has already requested of the Alaska Legislature. (Spencer’s other role is as the ASD board’s new student adversary member.)

The ASD 2019 fiscal year budget had a $13.1 million deficit prior to balancing the $559 million budget, said Andy Ratliff, senior director of the Office of Management and Budget at ASD. In order to balance the budget, the ASD board made more than $4 million in cuts and found efficiencies.

Cuts were proposed across the district, with Eagle River High’s loss of 2.2 teaching positions. This represents a loss of $220,000 for the school to absorb. The ASD doesn’t dictate individual school’s budget decisions, so loss of specific programs is coming from the high school administration, Ratliff said.

Nevertheless, positive action on the part of the Legislature would rescue the schools from fulfilling these teacher cuts that hack away at education, Spencer said.

“What I’ve heard a lot of is that students and teachers are frustrated,” Spencer said at the mic. “We are upset. I am frankly saddened by how our state prioritizes things. I believe students should be at the top of the list. That students are more important than potholes. That every student has a voice.”

The students had clearly done their homework.

The numbers cited included a comparison with other district high schools. Dimond High School houses 1,750 students with 150 faculty members; East High has 2,220 students; West High holds 1,860; and Bartlett High has 1,506. The current budget would cut 60 teachers district-wide, taking two from Eagle River.

“This change would adversely impact my school,” Schilling said, “Last year’s cuts left us with two counselors and one less language arts teacher. The impact is clearly seen every day as our two counselors struggle to manage 900 students.”

So far no decisions have been announced by the Eagle River High administration, said Principal Martin Lang. Typically, electives go before required classes, he said.

In the meantime, the students are hearing various ideas bandied about.

“There has also been recent talk of letting go of our three foreign language teachers and having languages only available online,” Schilling said. “This is absurd. The mastery of foreign language is something that requires live interaction, making online foreign language classes insufficient.”

Foreign language proficiency is often tied to college acceptance.

“Cutting live languages classes would put us at an even greater disadvantage in college readiness and post-secondary education. My classmates and I deserve better,” she said.

District-wide, schools have cut 217 teaching positions since 2013. Though they’ve weathered the cuts along with every other school in the district, this was student government group’s first foray into taking action.

“This was the first time our school has ever done anything political,” said co-student President Breanna Nowacki. “Normally our school has no school spirit. It was really cool to see everyone come together. They (administrators) weren’t negative about it and it was entirely student-planned.”

Nowacki is particularly focused on saving the Computer Aid Drafting, or CAD, class from the chopping block.

“This is the class you take if you are going into robotics, or engineering; it’s used to design parts,” she said. “I would like to see the legislature take a stand on whether they will improve classes by passing legislation in favor of schools.”

Naomi Klouda can be reached at naomi.klouda@alaskajournal.com.

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