School district facing one of its most challenging tests

In search of solutions

Posted: Tuesday, January 14, 2003

William Cook appreciates the education he's receiving in the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District.

A self-proclaimed idealist, the Soldotna High School student, visited the most recent school board meeting to tell the people who run his school -- and the other 42 public education sites in the borough -- just how much his education has meant to him and how important it will be to the students following him.

Cook told the board about his experiences at SoHi, from his extracurricular activities to his recent interest in psychology.

"In my time here, my involvement in music and the drama program has made me a better person," he said.

But, he said, he is concerned other students won't have the same opportunities.

In an era of budget constraints and new federal legislation paired with contentious contract negotiations and continuously declining enrollment, the district has proposed a number of controversial changes to the way it serves Kenai Peninsula students.

Budget Hearings

The Kenai Peninsula Borough School District is in the process of seeking community feedback for its 2004 fiscal year budget. Public budget hearings will be held throughout the peninsula during the next two weeks as follows:

Soldotna High School library, Wednesday, 7 p.m.

Seward High School auditorium, Thursday, 7 p.m.

Kenai Central High School library, Jan. 21, 7 p.m.

Homer High School library, Jan. 22, 7 p.m.

Nikiski Middle-Senior High School library, Jan. 23, 7 p.m.

"I understand that I don't understand everything this entails," Cook said. "But I've spent a lot of time talking with people about these changes. People are worried about cutting programs and consolidating schools."

Cook is not alone in his concern. A number of parents, students and teachers have spoken out against an early proposal to consolidate schools in the district, as well as other proposed changes.

Members of the school board and district administration are no less stressed.

Superintendent Donna Peterson said 2003 is bound to be a year of changes throughout the district. Some will come from outside, like the changes mandated by the federal Leave No Child Behind Act.

Others will have to come from within as the district decides how to make the most of its limited resources.

Any decisions and changes implemented in the district need public involvement, Peterson said. But that means the public needs to understand the complexity of the issues, she said.

Peterson said the problems facing the district are the same ones plaguing the nation and can be boiled down to two big issues: accountability and funding.

The district has a big charge -- providing quality education to every student -- and there are plenty of stakeholders interested in making sure it does just that.

Determining how best that education is defined and measured is a job still up for grabs.

"The idea is education for all society. That was what we said. But now it's becoming education as a way of separating," Peterson said. "Those that have the best teachers, best schools, best, best, best, do well. But America is supposed to do that for all.

"There should be a basic level, a basic standard for all in accountability. It will take some time to determine what that is."

Parents have ideas of what they want for their children. Employers know what they want from their future employees. And, of course, students like Cook have put some thought into what they want from their schools.

But each stakeholder's desires tend to be different, with the "crucial" programs ranging from advanced placement academic courses to vocational education to extracurricular activities.

Then, there's the government.

On the state level, legislators have set standards with a series of mandated tests. On the national level, the Bush administration last year passed 1,100 pages of legislation dictating how schools will "leave no child behind."

Even those standards have their shortcomings, Peterson said.

"We ought to be able to say, 'This test assures the basic standard,'" she said. "But which test is it?"

At present, students may take as many as eight different series of tests to measure performance from kindergarten through 12th grade.

Tests such as the Scholastic Aptitude Test and the American College Test are optional exams high schoolers take for college admissions.

Others, such as the Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills and Curriculum Based Measurement or the Analytic Writing Assessment, are used by the district to target specific reading and writing goals for students.

Then, there's the series of tests mandated by state government. These include the Terra Nova for grades four, five, seven and nine, the Alaska Benchmark Examina-tions for grades three, six and eight, and the Alaska High School Graduation Qualifying Examina-tion, which students must pass to receive a diploma.

While these tests hold both students and schools accountable for their level of education, they also can take time away from normal classroom instruction, create controversy over educational practices and cost money.

In addition, the federal government has accountability standards of its own.

The Leave No Child Behind Act, passed by the Bush administration in 2001, includes a number of new regulations for schools that are apt to cause headaches, Peterson said.

"We have no argument about the intent. The intent is good, and right in line with our long-range plan for personalized education plans for students and early intervention," Peterson said.

But, she added, some of the requirements and time lines included in the act do not have Alaska schools in mind.

For example, she said, the act requires that by January 2006 all schools be in complete compliance with new certification rules. Those rules require all elementary school teachers to be certified in elementary education and seventh- through 12th-grade teachers to be certified in secondary education with endorsement in the subject they teach.

That means teachers covering several subjects in the district's smaller rural schools would have to be certified in everything. That in itself isn't normal, as teachers generally graduate from college with one or two subject endorsements. Plus, Peterson noted, the path to obtaining additional endorsement isn't set.

"They say, 'Go back to school and get it,'" she said. "That means a whole new major or minor."

It also would mean five more years of college for teachers in Alaska and quite a bit of money out of either teachers' or districts' pockets.

Peterson said the state has promised to create a test to bypass additional college time for teachers, but the test hasn't been written yet.

"And you have to believe that it will be somewhat controversial," she said.

In addition, Peterson said, the federal government is not supplying adequate funding to help districts across the nation meet the new standards.

"When Kennedy said, 'We're going to go to the moon,' he didn't say we would do it on the same budget," Peterson said. "When Bush said, 'Leave no child behind,' the intent was a $16-billion bill. A year later, we have 1,100 pages of regulations and $1.4 billion to do the job."

Federal funding isn't the only shortfall in the district's budget. In fact, only about .2 percent of the district's anticipated 2004 general operating revenue comes from federal sources.

The majority of the district's money -- and challenges -- comes from state sources.

The state uses a complex formula based on enrollment to determine how much money each Alaska school district receives.

Peterson said, however, that the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District suffers under the formula because the state does not take into account the diversity of the district.

The state formula begins with the actual enrollment in the district, then adjusts the number based on the area cost differential, which is designed to account for the excess cost of running rural schools. The area cost differential for the KPBSD is 1.004, meaning that the state deems the borough only slightly more rural than Anchorage.

Peterson and many school board members have insisted that determination is not accurate, especially considering the number of small schools in the district, including four which are not accessible by roads.

The district has petitioned state legislators to take another look at the formula, and the results of a study are expected to be released this week.

However, many district administrators wonder whether the study will lead to changes to the formula.

Chief Financial Officer Melody Douglas said she saw part of the study early on and it did reflect the concerns the district has raised. But, she said during a recent budget work session with the school board, "It becomes a political issue, and in my opinion, it's probably going to end up on the shelf."

The problem, she said, is that to respond to the study, the Legis-lature will have to either take money away from some school districts to give it to others and-or increase the amount of money in the education budget on the whole.

Redistributing the money will only cause more inequities unless the entire education budget is increased -- and with the current focus on balancing the state budget, increases are not likely, she said.

Some peninsula legislators have proposed simply increasing the base rate that districts receive per student. While this would help the district somewhat -- as any additional money is a benefit -- it would not solve the basic inequity, district administrators said.

Peterson said the district plan is to continue lobbying legislators to make significant changes to the formula -- and she encourages the public to do the same -- but until that happens, she said, the area cost differential will remain one of the many challenges the district must face.

On top of the area cost differential problems, the district also sees shortfalls in state funding because its enrollment is constantly dropping.

The last time the district saw an increase in enrollment was in the 2000-01 school year when, after two years of significant decline, enrollment jumped by about .68 percent. Since then, however, enrollment has continued to drop significantly.

This year, in fact, the school board readjusted its enrollment predictions to reflect a sharper drop in student numbers. Even so, the district unexpectedly lost an additional 75 students between October and January, dropping enrollment to just less than 9,600 students.

The coming years aren't looking more promising, either. District projections show an expected decrease of anywhere from 84 to 252 students a year through the 2008-09 school year.

Borough population studies support the estimates.

According to the Kenai Penin-sula Borough Community and Economic Development Division's Quarterly Report of Key Economic Indicators, released last month, the populations of major cities in the borough has increased in the last 10 years. But that population is getting older.

In fact, the number of people in the 85 and older age group increased 167.1 percent between 1990 and 2000, while the 25- to 34-year-old group decreased about 23 percent. Most significantly for the school district, the 0- to 4-year-old age group -- the group that will be entering the school system in the next five years -- dropped 14.9 percent.

Peterson said the district has conducted exit interviews with families leaving the school system. Those interviews revealed there simply are not enough good jobs available for young adults on the peninsula, she said.

"When I talk to folks and say that people are leaving for jobs in Anchorage or Outside, that's not sitting well with the local business community, but I can only tell you what folks are telling us," Peterson said.

"People with the borough and the state, everyone's saying life is good. But every individual I talk to is saying, 'I couldn't find a job that paid as well,' or 'I was going to be let off in six months, so I'm leaving now.' Something's happening, and it's not happening here (in the school district)."

The challenges the school district is facing aren't helping matters either, though.

"It's a catch-22," Douglas said. "Declining enrollment means fewer staff, which means we're cutting programs. People are making decisions about what's best for their kids, and if they have the options to go elsewhere, they will, so we lose more students."

Peterson agreed.

"Folks are searching for something," she said. "As they see cuts happening, they start going and looking where the grass is greener."

But, she said, the same things are happening all over the state and country, and there's little green grass left.

While revenue drops, the district faces increased expenses in several areas.

The district's preliminary budget for the 2004 fiscal year plans for a 2 percent increase in utility costs.

Health insurance expenses, as well as liability and workers' compensation insurance, are on the rise nationwide since Sept. 11, 2001, and while not all of those increases have hit the district yet, they will in the coming year or so, Douglas said.

In addition, the school board approved a new negotiated contract for administrators in the district, which includes an average 2 percent increase to the administrators' salary schedule each year for three years.

The district also is in the midst of an ongoing negotiation process for teachers and support staff employees.

The associations representing those employees say workers are long overdue for a significant cost of living pay increase and pay too much in health care costs. The district cannot continue balancing its budget by limiting salaries and benefits for its workers, the associations representing the employees have repeatedly said.

The district, on the other hand, has pointed out that salaries and benefits are the majority of the district's expenses and thus are the only way to significantly impact the budget.

With that negotiation process -- which has been going on since last January -- entering arbitration this month, the district still doesn't know exact figures for its 2003 and 2004 fiscal year budgets.

Despite all the problems, Peterson said there is some good news in that the district is working hard to find viable solutions to the challenges it faces.

Admittedly, some of the solutions are painful -- like the decision to increase the pupil-teacher ratio by three students in grades three through 12. That means in larger high schools, the ratio will be one teacher for every 24.5 students, while in elementary schools, the ratio will be one for every 29 students.

But, Peterson said, even that wasn't as drastic as it sounds.

"It's not out of line with what other districts in the country are doing. It's not out of line with what research says," she said. "But we've been so blessed to have small class sizes that we forget it wasn't even 10 years ago that we averaged 30 kids in a class.

"Are we doing better with small class sizes? There are many things we're doing better, but we can't afford it any more."

The district also has floated the idea of cutting some extracurricular activities to meet budget constraints, though it's a path no one wants to take.

Then there's the school consolidation plan.

Though the preliminary plan -- which was introduced to the school board Jan. 6 for discussion only -- met immediate opposition from many community members, Peterson said the plan does have its benefits.

For example, consolidation would create slightly larger schools with more opportunity to offer a wide range of programs -- such as the advanced placement academics, vocational education and extracurricular activities that so many parents, students and employers want in schools. It also would help the district deal with the Leave No Child Behind teacher certification issue that challenges smaller schools.

Of course, the plan also has its drawbacks, which many community members have been quick to point out. For example, consolidation would mean some students would travel farther to school, some outlying areas would be left without the benefit of their own community schools and there would be more competition for students to get into extracurricular activities such as sports teams.

No matter what happens, Peterson said the district and the public are going to have to work together to make some decisions.

"We want folks to have an opportunity for input, and we want it, as much as possible, not to be politicized," she said. "People have to make a decision based on accurate information, not emotion."

But, she said she believes the peninsula has the right people to do the job.

People, she said, are the Kenai Peninsula's greatest asset.

And as for the district, "I believe we have the premier leadership team in the country," she said.

"These guys will knock themselves out for the right thing.

"They don't have all the answers, but we'll get there."

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