The Soldotna Schools Reconfiguration Advisory Committee recently presented its recommendations to the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District Board of Education for review.
KPBSD Superintendent Steve Atwater was on hand at the presentation when Doug Hayman and several members of the committee discussed the process and how they came to many of the recommendations.
On Tuesday Atwater discussed the process and future of the Soldotna Secondary Schools reconfiguration.
Atwater said he is positive about the process.
He said in the beginning, it was unyielding, but he felt it got better over time.
He said when he first began as superintendent, his first winter, a meeting was held to explore doing something different with the two schools, and there was a lot of polarizing energy.
Three years later he said administrators felt the time had come to revisit the topic.
He attended the Soldotna Schools Reconfiguration Advisory Committee meeting and said he was happy with the way it worked out the issues set before them.
“I was pleased with that process and feel like the public had multiple options and chances to weigh in and be a part of it,” he said. “I felt like we went out of our way, as much as we ever have, to make things transparent.”
Public comments, conversation and opinions
Atwater said the conversation that occurred was one that was predictable whenever a big change like this is made. It tends to spur the emotional side of people.
“They are driven by an emotional response to a strong sense of ownership of a building or a school,” he said. “I admire that and think that is an important part of what we have.”
He said he was surprised at the level of misinformation, and at no time did the district convey that they were going to spend a half million dollars.
“There was never a communication from the district to share this was going to be an enormous fiscal responsibility,” he said.
In fact, he said, at the April board meeting when they did the approval, the cost was said to be unknown.
“But what we do know is it won’t be a lot,” he said. “And we also know that it will ultimately save the district money because we are going to create efficiencies that we don’t have.”
Atwater respects the situation is emotional for people, but said he thinks the district and community will be stronger with the change.
The cost and what will change immediately
Atwater said the main thing for next August is to make the necessary cosmetic changes, primarily through signs for name changes.
“We are not prepared to go in and make deep changes, such as changing gym floors or … buying new uniforms, all of those changes will be made in the course of normal replacement cycle,” he said.
The changes will be made, he said, just during the regularly scheduled time.
As for the actual cost, Atwater said there is not a definite answer as of yet.
“We don’t have a dollar figure, which is why we have never shared one,” he said, “But I don’t anticipate it will be any where as significant as what people are saying.”
One issue brought to the table at many of the advisory committee meetings was the cost of new sports uniforms and shirts. He said the cost of replacing sports uniforms is not something the district is responsible for, that is from fundraised money.
“We are in a state of trying to rein in expenses, because we are not getting the revenue we are used to getting, or that we need to get.”
Focus on academics
With every big decision, there will generally be a portion of the group that will be disappointed or unhappy with the outcome. Atwater said he hopes the positive aspects of the reconfiguration will outweigh the negative.
“I think disappointment will be based on a name or a color, and I think if they can focus on the experience the children will have at the high school and the ninth-grade house, I think that is the most important piece is to really focus on — how we are going to improve the academic experience of the kids,” he said. “I think they will be offered a much richer experience than what they have now and so I am pleased that this is for the betterment for the kids.”
He realizes the colors and names of the schools are important, but it should not overshadow the ultimate experience the kids will have.
“I don’t want to dismiss the school colors and school names, those are important and I know there is a lot of identity tied with that, but I just hope people aren’t blinded by that and can see the bigger purpose for what we are doing.”
Looking at this as a lesson
With the consolidation of Nikiski and North Star elementary schools several years ago, and the current topics of reconfiguration of Soldotna Secondary Schools and Seward Elementary and Middle schools, Atwater said there is much to be learned and used to make decisions in the future.
“The biggest piece you can do is go slow,” he said. “To try and rush something is a mistake.”
He said while he does not believe the current school reconfiguration was rushed, there was a lot to get done in one year. While administrators debated the need for a longer process, Skyview’s enrollment dropped down from about 325 last year to nearly 250 this year, and the effects of the decline on student’s needs was the deciding factor.
“If we had gone to two years it would have really been a very incomplete experience for the kids who were left at Skyview,” he said.
What is the next step?
Atwater said the school board has agreed to play a role in taking those advisory recommendations as they were presented.
“Because this is so important, there is such a keen interest in (it), the board president has indicated that the board will take this on,” he said.
At the Dec. 2 board meeting, it will debate the pros and cons of what has been presented and make the final decisions.
Atwater said the issue will then go to the state where a formal request will be made to reconfigure the schools. If it is accepted, the plan will move forward.
Currently, administration has been assigned to the three reconfigured schools and the staffing process is continuing.
The district has also set up a Facebook page. The KPBSD Soldotna 7-12 Grade Schools Reconfiguration page was set up in late October to provide information, dates and decisions as well as to clarify misconceptions about the reconfiguration.
Reach Sara J. Hardan at firstname.lastname@example.org.