The issue of the ever-increasing Anchorage School District budget is one that few politicians shy away from.
All of them, serving on the school board or otherwise, agree that the district needs to be getting the best bang for its buck.
Some look at the figures and cringe: a 75 percent increase in spending over the past 10 years, with next year's school budget projected at nearly $812 million.
But ASD says if you dig into the numbers, the increases aren't truly as big and bad as they might seem.
The budget book itself is a monster, weighing in at almost seven pounds and 1,000 pages.
"The biggest amount of expenditure comes personnel, and the biggest chunk of that is teachers," said school board member Don Smith.
The self-described fiscal conservative says all the talk about how much the budget has increased over the years -- and how much needs to be cut to get back on track -- might be overstated.
"It really isn't as fat as some people think it is," Smith said. "It's easy to criticize, but you start digging down through this thing, and you'll discover it's a pretty amazing piece of work."
Starting in the 2002-03 school year, the overall Anchorage School District budget was $464 million. Over time, it's grown to a projected $812 million for next school year.
That overall budget figure contains four individual funds: the general school district fund, money to pay off voter-approved bond debt, grants and money to pay for school breakfasts and lunches.
School board member Pat Higgins says the board can't cut the voter-approved bond debt fund because it is money that needs to be paid off eventually.
Federal, state and local grant money usually has specific stipulations attached to it, and can't be used for whatever the board decides.
Food service money can't be spent for other projects, either.
"We can't take money out of debt, we can't take money out of grants, and we can't take money out of food service," Higgins said.
So when talking about "cutting the budget," that leaves the school district's general fund to deal with: the one fund where there can be substantial cuts made.
Next year's general fund is projected to be $638 million. It, too, has gone up considerably since 2002, when it was only $360 million.
"It looks like a lot, but it's misleading," Higgins said.
The district says that's because even when only dealing with the general fund, there are still several millions of dollars that the school board can't consider when trying to cut the budget.
Those expenditures include things like federally-mandated special education funding, health insurance costs, utility and fuel costs and retirement plans.
And that's not all.
$79 million of next year's school district budget is money the district won't even see. The district says those millions pay for extra state retirement funding that's needed because of longer life expectancies.
The district technically owes the money, but the state pays for it.
"What that does is it basically elevates our budget by millions of dollars beyond what it would look like if it represented actual operating costs for a school year," District Chief Fiscal Officer Chad Stiteler said.
If you take all those expenses out of the equation, the district says when you talk about the operating expenses that the district can actually control, the school budget is closer to $307 million, and the increases are actually much smaller than it sounds.
Ten years ago, the district-controlled operating expenses was $238 million, so by next year's projected numbers, the ten-year increase would be about 29 percent. The proposed budget for next year increases that figure by less than $1 million from this year.
"I think there's a $300,000 increase," said Stiteler. "It's relatively small given the whole scope of salaries and wages."
"The big issue here is, this kind of explains that we don't get much of an increase, to say the least," said Higgins.
With a stark budget reality ahead, the district says it's important for people to know that -- for the most part -- the budget increase isn't what it may always seem.
"Rather than having the time or taking the time to really dig into it (the budget), they don't," said Anchorage School District Superintendent Carol Comeau.
"It's important to get some of the facts and understand the basis for what’s in that budget before suggesting its increasing inappropriately," said Stiteler.
This is the first part of a three-part series on the Anchorage School District's budget, and proposed ideas to cut costs between the school district and the Municipality of Anchorage. Future parts in the series will examine two specific proposals: opening up school libraries for the general public to use, and sharing snow plows and other maintenance equipment between the school district and the city.