The Kenai Peninsula Board of Education heard from several school representatives and community members across the district asking for help to address school population needs.
The board also heard from the school district about the status of its union negotiations; a tentative agreement was reached Thursday and will be voted upon by the two unions in six weeks.
After the looming threat of closure, due to low enrollment numbers, the school in Hope has gotten a revival of sorts but the influx of new students brings complications of its own.
Tahneta Stroh, PTA president of Hope school and the parent of a first-grade student, spoke to the board of education about the strain on the school’s one teacher.
“We currently have 21 students ranging in age from kindergarten to high school senior and will be graduating two seniors and gaining three kindergartners next year,” Stroh said. “These numbers are hard, they are not hopeful estimates.”
Between one teacher and one aide, providing services for 11 grade levels is difficult.
“Our wonderful teacher is at school from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday through Friday,” Stroh said. “She is one of the hardest working teachers I have ever met. She, working these hours, is unable to maintain. Something is wrong.”
Stroh said the problem was less about the number of students and more about the spread of grade levels.
“It is impossible to assume that 21 students, ranging in age from 5 to 18 can be in the same room, at the same time, doing the same work,” she said. “Nothing would be accomplished. We have children taking lunch, recess, P.E., etc., all at varying times. As staff is now, we have to rely heavily on our generous volunteers, however it is unrealistic to depend on volunteers all the time.”
Stroh said the community was excited that the enrollment numbers reflected growth but wanted to “explore every avenue possible” to provide the school with an additional teacher.
Without additional help, Stroh said after the meeting, the school’s one teacher is “being set up to fail.”
“We realize that it may be unrealistic to get this teacher this year as we are closer to the end of the year,” Stroh said. “But our ultimate goal is to get a teacher for next year.”
Several women travelled from Razdolna, a community about 30 miles east of Homer, to speak about the space and curriculum issues facing their school.
Evdokaya Basargin said the school — located in a Russian Old Believer village — would like to have a Russian teacher.
“We don’t ask for much,” Evdokaya said. “We don’t have electives like P.E., music or other electives. We have kindergarten through 12th grade at our school. All we’re asking for is a Russian language position for our students.”
She said representatives from the school had been asking for several years and while the position was made available last year, it has since been removed without being filled.
“If we could get that position that would be really, really appreciated because our students come in only knowing one language and if they know their basic language, their Russian, I feel that they will know English better.”
Board of Education member Bill Holt asked how many students Razdolna had and was told the school had 74.
Domnika Basargin said every school she ever attended offered at least two languages.
“They have Spanish practically in every school that I ever went to, they always have that other. But for some reason, our school has never had that opportunity to even have a Russian teacher,” Domnika said. “I have three children in school, a fourth-grader, a second-grader and a kindergartner. I feel that they would learn better with their own language first and just kind of step up with English.”
Domnika said there were space concerns as well and some of the students were in classrooms so tiny they were “stepping all over each other.”
Fenya Basargin, the school’s secretary, said 23 students in the third through fifth grades were in one 20-by-30-foot classroom.
“We have a new building next to the main building that’s standing empty,” she said. “It has been standing empty for nine months.”
Both Fenya and Domnika said they were not sure why the new building was not available for use, but the space issues have put a strain on at least one teacher in addition to the students.
“A kindergarten teacher has been waiting for that classroom and has been waiting for this whole year and teaching out of boxes,” Fenya said.
Domnika said the group needed the space and asked the board of education to help them resolve the issues and expand into the building.
Board member Sunni Hilts, of Seldovia, thanked the group for coming.
“I think you are just growing way to fast out there,” she said.
Several people spoke about the Soldotna school reconfiguration plan that the school district is promoting.
In it, Skyview High School and Soldotna High School would be merged into one 10th- through 12th-grade high school, two seventh- through ninth-grade middle schools would help to alleviate pressure on Soldotna Middle School and six kindergarten through sixth-grade elementary schools would feed into the two middle schools.
James Gallagher and his father Mike Gallagher spoke against the current configuration plan.
James, a sophomore at Skyview High School, said there was very little community involvement in the plan that he could see.
“There’s been meetings held at the schools but, I mean, that’s hardly the entire community and being a member I can say that the majority of people have no clue what’s going on,” James said. “When you talk to your dentist or the person at the grocery store and it’s all hearsay, nobody knows the truth about it and you look at it, you say why is that?”
He said information was difficult to find.
“The information that I can find is very limited. There’s a bit on the web page and it’s just kind of hard to find,” he said.
Gallagher said the group in the school district which has been considering the reconfiguration — ten school principals and several administrators — was not reflective of the entire community.
“They’ve held meetings to encourage the community to discuss the merger, other alternatives or even a solution but only one option has been presented and it was hardly a discussion,” he said. “You can’t support this as a board until the community has been informed and involved. It’s their children, their tax money and quite frankly their future.”
Mike Gallagher said he was under the impression that decisions about the reconfiguration had already been made.
“They’re just kind of listening to what we have to say but it’s getting pushed through whether we like it or not, that’s my humble opinion,” he said.
He said he wanted to know how much the school reconfiguration was going to cost.
“You know it’s going to cost us a bundle as taxpayers,” he said. “It always does and they always go ‘oh well it’s not going to cost much’ and then it triples.”
Mike said he thought Soldotna was going through the “bust” portion of a boom and bust cycle and the school district should not make short term decisions that could cause trouble in the future.
“Five years from now when the population shifts ... we’re going to be sitting here going ‘we’ve got to build another school’ you mark my words,” he said.
Board member Marty Anderson, from Sterling, said he had not heard anything about the configuration and did not think the school district had an agenda.
“I know there’s some open public discussion going on right now but as a board member, not one thing has been proposed to me so I don’t have any information or matrix either,” he said.
Ariel Mercer, a substitute teacher and coach at the middle and high schools in Soldotna said she did not have a lot of information on the proposed reconfiguration but wanted the school board to look beyond basic numbers.
“Let’s look at what kind of environment we can provide for our children that is going to better their educational opportunities in the area and whether or not a seven-through-nine junior high is the best system to kind of group our children into,” Mercer said. “It doesn’t seem to be the progressive way that the schools in the nation or other states have gone toward, it’s more of a shift away from it.”
Mercer said she thought the focus of a configuration of schools should be based strictly on educational value.
“I would just encourage you guys to look at what other reconfigurations are possible and what other states or school district’s have done, rather than look strictly at the numbers of how many students we have in how many schools and how many bodies we can place in what configuration,” she said.
Austin Laber, Skyview student, said he thought the school district should consider the good graduation rates at both Soldotna High School and Skyview when considering whether to merge the two.
“Competition always promotes better outcome, greater outreach and a higher quality product and a more efficient way of doing things,” he said. “Whenever you have two high schools, the competition promotes better athletes, better kids and better schools.”
Mica Van Buskirk, president of the Seward site-based council, told the board that Seward Middle School is having “somewhat of a crisis.”
“They have lost most of their electives this year due to lower enrollment right now and projected enrollment coming up and next year they will lose their seventh grade science teacher and the remaining electives that they have,” Van Buskirk said. “It will significantly affect the school, either the social studies or the P.E. teacher will have to teach science in our middle school if nothing can be changed.”
Van Buskirk said there was a large population of students coming up through the elementary school grades but without electives and more course offerings she thought it would be difficult to make people want to stay in Seward.
After reviewing the staffing formula, Van Buskirk said there were three middle and high schools in the district that needed to be addressed.
“There are three schools that have less then half —I will call them smaller middle and high schools — less than half of the students that the other middle and high schools have and that is Seward Middle, Seward High and Homer Middle School. They have seven and fewer (full time equivalent teaching positions) whereas the rest of them have 14 to 24 (full time equivalent teaching positions) in that middle and high school categories,” Van Buskirk said.
She told the board that the Seward site council thought those schools could benefit from an amendment to the staffing formula that allowed them to have more teachers.
“To recognize that they can’t provide the core curriculum and good enough equitable opportunity for students,” she said.
She said she appreciated the district’s recognition of preschool students in its staffing formula as Seward had a large preschool population that had not previously been accounted for and needed extra staffing, but was disheartened to see the school board’s resolution 12-13-5 which labeled March 2013 as “Music in our Schools Month.”
“We have one music appreciation class in our middle school that’s going away and we have one choir class in our high school. We do not have band, we do not have drum circle, we do not have guitar, we do not have any music in our secondary schools but that one choir class,” she said.
The board also heard a statement from LaDawn Druce, Kenai Peninsula Education Association President, who explained why it would take several weeks for the district’s labor unions to ratify a tentative contract.
“I know the ratification process seems lengthy to you for the associations, however it is the past practice that we go throughout the district and hold as many area-wide meetings as possible to answer questions of our members that they may have about the contract,” Druce said.
The associations will vote electronically beginning April 1 and Druce said results would be available immediately after voting closes so the district would know by April 11 if the associations agreed to the contracts.
Druce said Superintendent Steve Atwater had suggested the Board of Education hold a special meeting in April to address the results of the vote.
Board President Joe Arness said he was pleased there had been a tentative agreement but was not happy to see that it would take six weeks to be resolved completely.
“Also disappointed to hear that maybe we should have a special meeting afterward so that we could get going on the contracts, just not happy about that,” he said. “The strain that’s going to be put on our finance department administratively between now and the (end of the) fiscal year is pretty enormous and it’s unfortunately going to be made worse.”