Discussions of a preliminary plan to consolidate schools in the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District has met opposition from community members at every turn, and the school board meeting Monday night was no exception.
Seats in the borough assembly chambers were filled Monday afternoon for a board work session on the plan, and nearly 150 people turned out for the general meeting Monday evening to speak their mind on the plan.
The plan was introduced to the school board Jan. 6 as a report from district administration. It was designed to explore possible long-term consolidations and closures of area schools as a means to deal with declining enrollment, budget cuts, new federal legislation regarding teacher certification and programmatic offerings on the peninsula.
Though district administration and board members repeatedly have said the report is a starting point for discussion rather than a plan for action, many community members have taken quick action to let their opinions of the idea be known. Members of the public spoke at the Jan. 6 school board meeting, held community forums throughout the peninsula and showed up en mass Monday to continue giving the school board feedback.
"It's been an incredibly emotional, time-intensive issue for many folks," superintendent Donna Peterson said Monday afternoon. "Though we've said this is an administrative report and there is no action slated, that doesn't seem to get the message across."
The board itself, however, has had little time to discuss the plan. Due to the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday last month, board members have not met since first hearing the report Jan. 6. Board members planned to discuss the report at a work session prior to their general meeting this week, but that session provided little time for board discussion either, as the board opted to take time to hear more input.
The work session began with Peterson providing board members with her thoughts and some updates on various parts of the plan since hearing public feedback.
For example, she said that since issuing the consolidation report, the district has been working with Project Grad, a program based out of Texas that works with low-performing small schools.
She said the program may be able to provide the district with a number of new resources and services that would make small schools work better and eliminate a need to consolidate schools in order to offer better programs for students.
"That wasn't on the radar when the report was written," she said. "Now we're pretty far down the line with (establishing) a partnership."
That opportunity, paired with the fact that the district's potential certification issues from the Leave No Child Behind act won't take effect until 2005, led Peterson to suggest the district delay any decisions on small school consolidations for a few years.
Peterson also suggested that consolidation ideas for the central peninsula be suspended as well, due to negative public feedback and limited financial savings. She said, however, that the district does need to continue considering ways to share staff and align schedules between schools to provide better program options for students.
She noted, however, that many people in Nikiski responded favorably to an idea to combine North Star and Nikiski elementary schools.
"I'd like permission from the board to continue that conversation," she said.
She also said conversations about the kindergarten through 12th-grade school in Hope need to continue in some format.
"Hope is an issue I just don't know where to go with," she said. "If we go by the law, like we did in Windy Bay and Beluga, we need to close it (when enrollment drops)."
State law requires districts to provide a school in communities with eight or more students in kindergarten through sixth grade. The Hope elementary population is expected to drop below eight by 2004, though more students do attend the school in older grades.
While Peterson provided her thoughts on the matter, she said it is the board's responsibility to give the administration direction in the matter and asked members to decide where the district should go with future discussions of consolidation.
The board, for its part, seemed to want more community feedback. Members decided to forgo the listen-only rules at the work session and allow representatives from three schools -- Hope, Ninilchik and Soldotna Elemen-tary -- to share brief testimony on the report.
Representatives from each community said they felt their schools -- and communities -- were threatened by the plans and asked the board not to close any schools.
The representative from Hope asked the district to look beyond the letter of the law when considering the future of his community's school.
Bruce Oskolkoff of Ninilchik provided board members with detailed packets of information on education law and consolidation data from around the country. He said changes to the small kindergarten through 12th-grade school would have an adverse affect on both students and the larger community and suggested that the consolidation report treated small schools unfairly.
"We're always at the end of the chopping block," he said. "This is not the first time this has happened. It seems to be an issue often."
Laurie Lingafelt of Soldotna Elementary also spoke briefly to the board, simply asking members to reconsider ideas to change her school as well.
"We're not rural, we're not small, but we're a community like everybody else," she said.
After listening to all three representatives, board members took a few minutes to discuss their own thoughts and questions on the report -- none supporting any quick forward movement with the plan.
"I'd like to see more dollar figures before we make any drastic moves," said school board member Sammy Crawford.
"I'd encourage Dr. Peterson and the administration to continue with discussions into consolidation," added school board member Margaret Gilman. "The most important part has to be the academic programs delivered to students, though."
Board member Al Poindexter said he believed conversations should only continue in the communities that expressed interest in the ideas.
"I've always believed schools have the potential to be a catalyst for social change. When we consider consolidating schools, we're forcing a social change," Poindexter said. "I think it needs to be a local decision, to do the best with what we're able to provide."
Arness agreed with many of the points, taking a moment to summarize board comments for the administration.
"I've heard the question raised many times, 'Why are we even talking about this?'" he said. "We're doing our job. The plane is losing altitude -- things in the district are going to look different in two years. We're trying to anticipate that. It has nothing to do with warfare between communities. It has nothing to do with warfare between schools."
Arness said he suggested the district leave Hope in the budget for the coming year but work to develop a plan for just how low the enrollment can get before closing the school. He suggested the same sort of plan be developed for all the high schools in the area, determining criteria for how long things will stay status quo. He also suggested consolidation conversations continue in Nikiski if community members were favorable to the idea.
Still, the board did not give the administration a formal directive, opting instead to continue listening to public comments at the general meeting later in the evening.
And they had plenty to listen to.
About 34 people took the opportunity to speak during the public presentation portion of the meeting. Most spoke on the consolidation plan -- none in favor of the ideas. Many of the speakers were students, parents and community members from Nikolaevsk, begging the district not to alter a school that is working well for its predominantly Old Believer community. Ninilchik also was well represented by speakers.
School board members made no formal comment on the consolidation during the general meeting -- it was never on the agenda -- but a few did reference the report in their closing comments.
Dr. Nels Anderson indicated some of the conversations may have been premature, hinting that nothing may happen with the plan immediately.
"Maybe we've riled up the community unnecessarily. It might have been a mistake," he said. "But the discussion is good."
"One good thing is the fact that (nearly) 200 people are here to speak from their heart about their schools and communities," she said. "As horrible as (some of the recent problems) are, at least it's brought the issue to the attention of all the people in the borough. We're all stakeholders."
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