The Kenai Peninsula Borough school board on Monday reluctantly voted to consolidate Sears and Mountain View elementary schools in Kenai, and to offer the Sears Elementary building to Kaleidoscope School of Arts and Science, a district charter school.
Board member Marty Anderson of Sterling, told the audience, which overflowed the borough building assembly chamber, that he’d like to see primary schools like Sears in communities across the district.
“Unfortunately, we don’t have that ability. ... The district is given a certain amount of money and told to make it work. I think this consolidation, though not my choice, is what’s best for the community. It’s not my choice, but I think it’s what we need to do to be responsible,” said Anderson.
The decision by the board to accept the recommendation put forward by Donna Peterson, the district superintendent, caps the nearly year-long Kenai Conversation. Peterson’s recommendation comes after several months of research and input from building administrators, site councils, academic policy councils, parent-teacher groups and oral and written public testimony.
The boarded voted 7-2 in favor of consolidating schools, with Bill Hatch of Kenai and Debbie Brown of Kasilof opposing the recommendation. Mountain View, which currently houses third, fourth and fifth grade, will become a kindergarten through fifth-grade building next fall as the kindergartners, first- and second-graders from Sears will move into classrooms there. Kaleidoscope, a kindergarten through fourth-grade school with plans to expand to fifth grade next fall, currently shares space at Sears and leases space in the Willow Street mall.
Hatch, who said he has lost a great deal of sleep over the decision, said while there are good arguments for consolidation of Sears and Mountain View, he didn’t feel the move was in the interests of the Kenai community.
“It’s clear to me, from all the people I’ve talked to, ... the people of Kenai would vote to keep the schools as they are. I have little objection, personally, to consolidating the two schools. However, I’m going to vote ‘No’ because I feel that’s what people are interested in,” Hatch said.
Brown had similar reasons for opposing consolidation.
“It seems to me that the community, the people who participated, would have preferred (keeping Mountain View and Sears in their current configurations and splitting Kaleidoscope between the two schools). ... I believe very strongly in trying to follow the will of the people who have the energy to participate in the process,” Brown said.
Though the assembly chamber was standing-room only, just six members of the public chose to testify on the recommendation at Monday’s board meeting. Concerns were raised that students would lose the individual attention that makes Sears special, and that a larger student body would hurt special needs students.
Sunni Hilts, of Seldovia, told district administrators her support for consolidation came with the condition that as such issues come up, they be thoroughly addressed.
In her remarks at the conclusion of the meeting, Hilts said it was a difficult decision to make.
“I found it painful because I saw a school that worked beautifully and I don’t want to see it change,” Hilts said.
The bottom line for the board, though, was money. As the district faces the loss of 75 teachers, any little bit of money that can be saved for example, passing on $250,000 worth of utility and maintenance costs to Kaleidoscope will be explored.
“I realize this is a big issue, but I believe we have to represent the best interests of all of our students. Consolidation is going to be an unfortunate circumstance ... so we can put money into classrooms, and not money into structures,” said board member Dr. Nels Anderson, of Soldotna.
“As several people have pointed out, consolidation is a fact of life. Since 2002, we’ve been pursuing consolidation because of our fiduciary responsibilities,” said board member Sammy Crawford, who represents Kalifornsky Beach. “Hopefully, all of this will work, and kids will benefit.”
Those who spoke in favor of consolidating Sears and Mountain View said they hoped it would lead to more opportunities for students. Board member Liz Downing, of Homer, recalled her anxieties as a parent when the district looked at consolidating Paul Banks and West Homer elementary schools several years ago. While she felt Paul Banks, a primary school, was ideal, her feelings changed when her child moved into third grade at West Homer.
“I can see what might have been offered, had the consolidation taken place,” Downing said. “I’m trying to take emotion out of the issue, even taking Kaleidoscope out of the equation ... I’m reading the writing on the wall in terms of what kids would not be getting.”
Board president Debra Mullins, who represents Nikiski, expressed regret that the Kenai Conversation had divided parts of the Kenai community, and said she was unsure how to go about putting the pieces back together.
“We were not looking to divide the community, we were looking to do what’s best for the community,” Mullins said.
The next step in the process is for Peterson to put together a steering committee to oversee the transition. The committee will include representatives from both Mountain View and Sears, as well as a district office facilitator. Peterson said she would draw on some of the experience gained when the district consolidated elementary schools in Nikiski in 2004.
“There are several items that will come up in a transition of this sort,” Peterson told the board. “There’s no blueprint for this. We have to take each item as it comes up.”
Members of the board and members of the public who testified at the meeting emphasized one point: the Legislature controls the district’s budget, and the only way to change the budget is to contact legislators and ask for change.
“It seems that lately, the school board has been on damage control,” Trudy Jones, of Kenai, said during a public comment period prior to the board’s decision. “I wonder how different it would be if we provided opportunities based on what we thought students needed, and not on how much money we have.”
Will Morrow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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