Voices of the Peninsula: Energy, emotion should be focused on building for the future

Change can be a daunting process.

Even when we know that the change will be for the better, as humans we fear and oppose it. That is a part of the human condition.

It turns out that our School District is in the process of undergoing some change. Specifically, at this moment the change involves the three secondary schools in the Soldotna area. While it is generally agreed that the changes are positive ones for the education of the students involved, there is controversy surrounding the peripheral issues involved. As a Board member, and one of 9 who will be adjudicating the issues involved, I’d like to let the community know a few things as I see them.

Once the big question (whether to combine the high schools) was made, the “side” questions of what the details would look like took center stage. As you know, the district established a working group to oversee the definition of the question, as well as to provide recommendations to the board regarding school names, colors, and mascots, along with issues related to school climate and the physical aspects of the moves themselves. That committee has now finished its work, and has provided the board with a recommendation. Now it’s our turn.

As a result of the press coverage and the conversations in the community, we as board members have received a large number of emails and other communications which express the opinions of the authors on these subjects. Make no mistake … we appreciate them all. I don’t know if the people who sent them expected a response of some sort, but I have not responded directly to any of them. My thought was that the process would take its course and then these conversations would be fully held, with all the information available, in due time. There are, however, some recurring themes in many of the messages I’ve seen which I’d like to comment on.

The first concern that is often expressed relates to cost: How much money will this arrangement cost the District and, specifically, how much will changing the mascot/colors/name take out of the classroom financial allocations. There has been no attempt to establish a dollar amount available for this effort, nor do I think there should be. This process is going to be divisive and destructive enough without having either side of the conversation being able to use District cost estimates as a hammer to silence the dissent. A full and free exchange of ideas and solutions is critical here. These changes in configuration and site will cost money, and we will fund the changes. The expenditure will not, however, be anywhere near the numbers being used in many of the emails and letters we have received. At this time the extent of those changes is unknown, but the expense is expected to be minimal.

The idea that “the Board shouldn’t even listen to the other side” in favor of adopting the writer’s point of view is offensive to me. I have read many times that we should simply ignore the people who think differently as they don’t have the high ground or “will be gone in a couple of years”. That is simply no way to resolve a difference of opinion or perspective. We all need to respect the fact that our actions are having a profound impact on other people and we should be aware of what those impacts are … and the potential long term “collateral” damage that simple words can cause.

The other issue I have encountered is that there is some sort of intent, or agenda involved here at the Board or Administrative level. That is simply, and absolutely, not true. I do, however, understand that the people associated with Soldotna High School as well as the alumni of SOHI do have an opinion. I respect that. I also respect that the people who have called Skyview “their” school for the past twenty years also have an opinion. Both opinions are valid and deserve to be treated with respect. The point is that I will weigh them both on the way to making a decision … and value them equally in the conversation.

My point here is that I know this is an emotional issue for the people who are directly “in” it. I get that. However, on a larger scale, we all need to be cognizant of the long term damage that this controversy can cause for the city of Soldotna and its environs. Between now and the School Board meeting in December, as well as at the meeting itself, I would encourage everyone involved to remember that you are dealing with your neighbors, and in some cases your friends. I believe it is one of those moments where we, as citizens of a community, can step up and demonstrate our ability to overcome obstacles and differences in favor of the larger good. Let’s focus our anger, our energy, and our enthusiasm on building something better … as opposed to attempting to undermine or weaken one another. In the larger picture, we will all be better off for having done so.

Joe Arness, of Nikiski, serves as the president of the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District Board of Education.

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