Board discusses school closures, consolidations

Public frets over plans

Posted: Wednesday, January 08, 2003

The Kenai Peninsula Borough School District Board of Education took its first look Monday afternoon at a preliminary long-range plan for consolidating schools. The public apparently was a step ahead of the board, however, as several people turned out to speak their minds on the idea.

Superintendent Donna Peterson emphasized that the plan was designed as a starting point for conversation, not for action.

"We assume this will be a long process," she told the board during a short work session prior to the board meeting Monday. "This is merely the first step."

Peterson said the district first began looking at consolidation as one of several "outside the box" ideas to save money in the light of budget constraints.

But, she said, it now has gone beyond a financial measure.

Unless big schools are closed completely -- an idea few seemed to support at present -- the district would save very little money, she said.

Rather, the idea provides a possibility for more comprehensive programmatic offerings for students and a way for the district to deal with new federal legislation on teacher certification, which is likely to become a problem in the district's smaller schools in the next few years.

According to Peterson, educational research indicates that the ideal size for an elementary school is 350 to 500 students, while the target for a middle or high school is 700 to 900 students. Schools of that size are generally more able to become comprehensive, offering programs such as art, physical education, music, drama, debate, athletics, vocational education and college preparation, all at once.

Smaller schools, such as those on the peninsula that often have far fewer students and are shrinking every day, are forced to choose between programs due to limited budgets and teacher staffs, Peterson said.

Furthermore, the federal Leave No Child Behind act mandates that by January 2006, all middle and high school teachers must be certified in the subject area in which they teach. Teachers usually are only certified in one or two subjects, though, meaning small schools that serve secondary students with only a few teachers will become increasingly hard to staff.

Consolidation of peninsula schools could help address these challenges, Peterson said.

However, she was quick to note that community discussion was an integral part of any decision.

"My caveat to making a decision is accurate information from the people involved," Peterson said.

She noted it would be important to have numerous community dialogues. In addition, she said the district would need a way to collect empirical data on community input, rather than just listening to the loudest voices.

For its part, the community was ready to talk.

Though Peterson said she was bringing the plan to the board as a "reality check" to see if members were interested in exploring the consolidation idea, members of the public said they already had heard rumors about the plan -- and many were ready to oppose it fiercely.

Dan and Sue Hecks of Seldovia attended the board meeting to speak out against closure of Susan B. English School in their community.

"If you make cuts to our school, you make cuts to our town," Dan Hecks said.

"This is not only a budget, this is students and families," Sue Hecks added. "This isn't just a budget, it guts and kills our entire community."

Several other speakers at the board meeting attended to fight any plan to close Skyview High School or to combine it with Soldotna High School.

Such a consolidation would cause overcrowded classrooms and diminish the number of students able to participate in extracurricular activities, they said.

"The borough voted in the '80s to keep schools small," said Skyview parent Pat Shields of Kasilof. "Combining the schools is a poor decision. ... It's making kids pay by lost opportunities."

In response to the community concern, the board emphasized that no action plan is in place to start consolidating schools.

"This is just a first reading of the idea. We have to have all the ideas on the table whether they're painful or not," said board member Debra Mullins. "I need a lot more discussion. There's still a lot of work on this to do."

School board member Al Poindexter agreed.

"I tend to personally agree with most of the speakers tonight," he said.

But, he added, "What we try to do as a school board is look outside the box at how to make education better. This is one of those endeavors. (All the arguments) need to be explored. Everyone needs to be informed of what there is to gain and to lose."

The board did not decide whether it wanted to move forward with exploration of the consolidation idea. It will schedule a work session prior to its Feb. 3 meeting to continue discussing the preliminary plan. If board members are favorable at that point, a period of community dialogues and research will begin to determine whether to go ahead with consolidation plans.

"We'll be making a decision whether or not to keep pursuing a conversation at our February meeting," Poindexter said. "Whatever we do, we will base the decision on what's best for the kids and community."

Also Monday, the board:

Approved a revised pay schedule for substitutes and other temporary employees to reflect minimum wage and overtime changes that went into effect Jan. 1 by state law.

Approved the assignment of six new teachers, including Jacob J. Doth, middle school science teacher at Nikiski Middle-Senior High School; Diane R. Bernard, temporary Title I teacher and librarian at Soldotna Elementary School; Jodie Garten, special education and resources teacher at Kenai Central High School; James P. Keal, counselor and social studies teacher at Homer High School; Christy L. Mulyca, business and technology education teacher at Seward High School; and Carol J. Thomassen, temporary middle school generalist at Seward Middle School. These teachers have been with the district since the beginning of the school year, but their appointments were being approved Monday due to slow paperwork in Juneau.

Awarded Sears Elementary School nurse Bekkie Jackson the Golden Apple Award for years of service to the health of Kenai school children and the community at large.

Approved a year-long unpaid leave of absence, which started Dec. 9, for Janie Finley, Kalifornsky Beach Elementary School nurse; and a 24-day unpaid leave, which started Dec. 3, for Levi Doss, special education aide at Nikiski Elemen-tary.

Approved the redirection of remaining bond funds for four capital improvement projects in the district. The funds came from a bond package passed in 2000, and most of the money was used to reroof 10 schools, insulate KCHS, replace the boiler at Soldotna High, expand the gym at Nikolaevsk and replace bleachers at four schools. After these projects, however, the district had about $1.7 million left over that only could be used for educational capital improvement projects approved by the Department of Education and Early Development.

The district will ask the EED to approve a remodel and sprinkler installation at Soldotna Middle School, costing an estimated $900,000; construction of four portable buildings to replace existing units, costing an estimated $320,000; repair of a leak at the Ninilchik School pool for about $150,000; and roof and drainage repairs at Nanwalek School, costing about $350,000.

Approved a fiscal year 2003 budget transfer to prepare for the 2004 budgeting process. The transfer appropriated $1,031,761 from fund balance to bring the fiscal year 2003 operating budget to $77,648,001. The 2003 budget is in flux because the district has not settled contract negotiations with teachers and support staff and, therefore, cannot account for salary and health benefit expenses, explained Chief Financial Officer Melody Douglas. She said the transfer was necessary to build the 2003 budget -- and the preliminary 2004 budget -- based on the district's most recent offers to its employees.

Approved the Kenai Peninsula Administrators' Negotiated Agree-ment, which provides a three-year contract for the district's administrators.

School board member Margaret Gilman suggested the board wait to approve the contract until contract negotiations also had been settled for the district's teachers and support staff. Her motion, however, was not supported, and she cast the only vote against approval of the administrators' contract.

Contract negotiations for teachers and support staff members represented by the Kenai Peninsula Education Association and Kenai Peninsula Education Support Association, respectively, have been ongoing for more than a year now. The process has advanced to the stage of arbitration, but as of late last week, no dates had been set to continue the process.

School consolidation plan

The Kenai Peninsula Borough School District's preliminary long-range plan for consolidating schools, released in mid-December, outlines several possible consolidation ideas up for discussion. The ideas are categorized by school size and include the following:

Small schools with less than 100 students:

(Hope, Kachemak Selo, Nanwalek, Port Graham, Razdolna, Susan B. English, Tebughna, Moose Pass, Cooper Landing and Chapman)

Close Hope School as elementary population will be less than eight students in 2004.

In kindergarten through eighth-grade schools, provide kindergarten through sixth-grade instruction as in the past and move seventh- and eighth-graders to a regional middle school.

In kindergarten through 12th-grade schools, provide kindergarten through sixth-grade instruction as in the past, direct instruction for language arts and math for grades seven through 12 and distance delivery instruction for other subject areas for grades seven through 12.

Small schools with less than 200 high school students:

(Nikolaevsk, Ninilchik and Voznesenka)

Provide kindergarten through sixth-grade instruction as in past, direct instruction for seventh- through 12th-grade language arts and math, distance delivery of other subjects for seventh through 12th grades and optional bus service to a regional middle or high school.

Small alternative and special high schools:

(Spring Creek, Kenai Alternative and Homer Flex)

Continue providing direct instruction for ninth- through 12th-grade students as in the past.

Large schools with more than 200 students:

Move Moose Pass seventh- and eighth-graders to Seward Middle-High School and offer proscriptive, rotating courses.

Move Chapman seventh- and eighth-graders to Homer Middle School and solicit community input to review delivery, grades and boundaries of McNeil Canyon, Paul Banks and West Homer elementary schools and Homer Middle School, as well as integration of Russian Village students in Homer schools.

Combine North Star and Nikiski elementary schools and solicit community input on options for Nikiski Middle-Senior High School, including rotating course offerings, distance delivery and bus service to Kenai.

Solicit community input regarding options for Kenai boundary changes and grade configurations.

Solicit community input regarding options for Soldotna schools, including the creation of an academic-only high school, consolidation of Skyview and Soldotna high schools, redistribution of elementary school students and boundary and configuration changes.

Superintendent Donna Peterson and school board members emphasized that the consolidation plan is only a first step in a long process that will include plenty of community conversation. The plan was put forward to deal with declining enrollment, new federal mandates, financial limitations and programmatic constraints.

Peterson said the plan is designed to begin community conversations, not immediate action. The plan calls for at least a year of discussion with communities before any action is taken.

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