Steve Atwater, Kenai Peninsula Borough School District superintendent, discussed student enrollment and the budget process during a Wednesday luncheon.
With a backdrop of Christmas lights and poinsettias, Atwater began his presentation to the Kenai Chamber of Commerce with the subject of enrollment.
“The trend that has been happening for years and years is that it is going down. We have fewer and fewer kids in our schools,” he said.
Atwater said peak enrollment in the district was in 2002 with 10,500 children, and according to his data currently there are 8,700 children enrolled in the 44 schools across the district.
He said the district is losing approximately one percent of its student population each year, with a growing borough. By grade, according to his data, the demographics show that high school populations are higher than those in the elementary level.
He said it was encouraging that there is a high number of kindergarten students enrolled this year.
“We have lots of little guys coming through the door and the plan is that these kids will be with us throughout and will begin to turn this around,” he said.
He said he hopes are that things are getting better and hopefully those numbers will turn around with the upturn of the economy.
He said the more immediate conversation is what will happen if a proposed natural gas pipeline goes to Nikiski and what would that mean for the district.
“There is a lot of promise that that will happen,” he said.
With the potential boost, in terms of economic growth, he said the capacity of Mountain View and Nikiski North Star elementary schools could pose a problem.
“If we were to get a slug of new kids that come into our region, (Mountain View) would immediately be overwhelmed,” he said.
He said as many as 30 new students to Mountain View could create an issue where more portable classrooms would need to be used on the site.
“Which is not an ideal situation,” he said, adding that NNS could also reach capacity with rapid growth in Nikiski.
He said looking ahead, he will be working with the state and borough in terms of how can the district prepare for a possible increase in enrollment.
“This is a good problem to have, whenever your faced with an influx of kids, that is a good problem,” he said. “But it certainly could be one that is challenging to us.”
He said district student performance was high compared to the state averages, stating that KPBSD kids outperform the state in reading and writing. He also said that graduation rates on the Kenai Peninsula were higher than the state average.
The budget was another topic Atwater discussed at the luncheon.
He said that an average of two-thirds, or 60 percent of the money the district gets comes from the state of Alaska in one-year increments.
According to his presentation, health care costs have accounted for more than $21 million in 2012 with 3,600 employees and their dependents.
“Its going up and it is hard for us because (health care) is eating a bigger piece of our pie every year,” he said. “Every time we spend more money on health care, it means less money devoted to the classroom for our children.”
Aside from health care costs, Atwater said the deceased enrollment is spread out across the district. He said he is often asked why, if enrollment is going down, the budget isn’t decreasing at the same level.
“It makes sense that that would be the case, but it doesn’t because we have 44 schools and if you disperse our kids throughout the 44 schools, pluck five from one place, three from another place and six from another place, eight from another place, that equals a teacher. But you have just drawn them from four different schools, so you can’t eliminate a teacher based on only losing four,” he said. “And that is a lot of what we see, we don’t see a big drain coming from one concentrated place. We see pockets or a piecemeal kind of approach.”
After his presentation, Atwater opened the floor to questions.
Dena Cunningham, owner of area McDonalds stores, asked Atwater about the issue of smart phones in the classroom.
“As a business owner I was extremely discouraged when I heard that the schools were going to be allowing kids to have their cell phones with them all the time in classes,” she said. “I employ a lot of teenagers, I have talked to a lot of different business owners in different industries, not just in my industry. And it is a real problem in the workforce.”
Cunningham said she has to talk to employees about texting in the back room daily, instead of doing what they get paid to do.
Cunningham suggested that the district look at making guidelines of cell phone use stricter and to discuss the topic of work ethics at the high school level.
“Year after year, after year it is dwindling,” she said. “It is really noticeable and really frustrating.”
Atwater responded by agreeing that the use of smart phones in the classroom is a double-edged sword.
“Certainly, these are addictive,” he said holding up his phone. “As a society we need to address (the issue), I don’t think it is just a school district issue.”
He said he felt that work ethics do need to be addressed with today’s students.
“I am happy to be a part of the solution to that, I think we do need to do more,” Atwater said.
Reach Sara J. Hardan at email@example.com.