Charter school teachers, parents and students argue for inclusion in bond package

Aquarian Charter School.

The Anchorage School Board has a plenty to juggle as it puts together its list of school bond projects to put in front of voters in next year’s elections. There are earthquake repairs and regular major maintenance projects to balance against the appetite of voters.

But there’s another question in front of the school board: Should the school district add critical repairs to the popular Aquarian Charter School, which occupies a district-owned building, to the list?

That’s the case brought by staff, teachers and parents connected to the school, who’ve been on a campaign to get attention—and funding—for the aging school’s leaky roof, prone-to-breaking boilers and other repairs. The group estimates the costs will be about $6.7 million.

The issue drew plenty of testimony at the Anchorage School Board’s Oct. 15 meeting, including from students and parents who say that the school’s major maintenance needs have been overlooked for years because the school’s status as a charter.

“When you walk into school, you see a bucket and then another. You get used to it but when you realize how many leaks there are you shouldn’t have to get used to it,” sixth-grade student Meadow told the school board last week. “The roof has so many leaks there’s usually one bucket at school every day. … Every year in the winter when the heats come on, our classrooms start to smell like dead animals.”

In Alaska, charter schools exist as an official piece of local school districts and receive funding through the school funding formulas, but decisions on how schools are handled and ran are administered at the school level. Any student in a district can enter a lottery to attend the school, but access can sometimes be limited because such schools don’t have traditional busing systems.

When it comes to operation and maintenance, charter schools are responsible for those costs under state law that was revised in 2014. Under that same law districts are supposed to provide those charter schools with the funds for operation. It’s here that the breakdown happens.

While the district has apparently taken this law as a signal to remove Aquarian Charter School from consideration for major maintenance funding, backers of Aquarian say it leaves the school with no avenue for tackling major maintenance projects. Aquarian backers say the district’s position runs contrary to the law.

Other charter schools have taken on mortgages on their own for upgrades or new buildings, but Aquarian Charter School is in a unique position because it currently occupies an Anchorage School District building located on municipal land.

One parent, Billy Wailand, told the school board that Aquarian’s needs have been overlooked in recent bond packages while other, lower-priority projects at regular public schools have been approved. He argues that the district has a responsibility to the school.

“Something is wrong with this picture,” he said. “It’s not to suggest that these other schools don’t have important needs or deserving staff and children, I’m sure they did, it’s to demonstrate that ASD was not making its decision on data-driven prioritization. What has become painfully clear is that the ASD, our landlord, made a decision not to invest in our in our ASD building because we are a charter school.”

School Board member Andy Holleman told KTUU that there’s an obvious need of repairs for the school but acknowledged that the school’s status as a charter school complicates the matter.

“The solution is difficult, but my message would be this is absolutely something that we need to figure out together,” Holleman told the station. “These are Anchorage School District kids, in an Anchorage School District building.”

To that end, the Anchorage School Board has convened an ad-hoc committee between leadership of Aquarian and members of the school board. A recommendation is due by December, but the school board is expected to approve its bonding project ahead of that deadline.

Why it matters

Local school districts are typically outside of our wheelhouse, but this issue caught our attention because it raises some interesting issues. Namely, it raises the question of what kind of responsibility do school districts have to charter schools.

“We are Anchorage School District teachers, we have Anchorage School District students and we’re in an Anchorage School District facility,” said teacher Brittany Nerland in an advocacy video. “We just want our facility maintained like other schools in the district.”

The school’s backers argue that state law is on their side when it comes to asking for district-wide help with major capital projects.

However, there’s also possibly perceived issues about fairness between how different charter schools are handled. Aquarian’s location in a school district building is largely unique in the Anchorage School District where other charter schools have sought leases and taken on mortgages for their buildings.

And this is all against a backdrop of a state that’s ramping down and backing out of its assistance to school district maintenance and construction.

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