Lack of money leaves school district eyeing 75 positions to cut

Learning to make do

Posted: Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Losing a half-time teaching position may not sound like much, but to the parents of students at Razdolna School, it’s the difference between failure and success.

 

“Our teachers don’t have enough contact time with our students,” said Natalia Basargin while addressing the school board during its Feb. 19 meeting. “As soon as they learn to work independently, they’re left on their own. It’s not the teachers’ fault — we have good teachers — but our older kids are getting left behind. Their scores go down, not because our kids are stupid, but because they don’t get any attention. ... It (the staffing cut) looks good on paper, but our children are being left behind.”

 

When the school board meets in Homer on Monday, it will be presented with a budget for the 2007-08 school year that calls for laying off 75 teachers and is still $2 million out of balance. Any help, members of the school board have said, has to come from the Legislature as the district simply does not have any more money to spend.

“The district is given a certain amount of money and told to make it work,” board member Marty Anderson, of Sterling, said during the Feb. 19 school board meeting.

While several bills in the Legislature address funding for education, lawmakers are not likely to act on any of them until the end of the legislative session schedule for May 16 — well past the date when school districts much send out pink slips.

Students and parents at Razdolna, a kindergarten though 12th-grade school east of Homer at the head of Kachemak Bay, are not alone in their frustration as they look at potential cuts for the 2007-08 school year. Razdolna’s loss of a half-time teaching position represents a 25 percent staff reduction from the school’s two full-time teaching positions.

Districtwide, 15 teachers are slated to be cut due to declining enrollment while another 60 will be issued pink slips due to budget constraints. Those 75 teachers represent nearly 12 percent of the school district’s certified teaching staff.

The district’s 2007-08 budget calls for an increase of four students to the district’s pupil to teacher ratio. Kindergarten classes would see a PTR of 24:1; the PTR for first, second and third grade will be 26:1 and fourth-, fifth- and sixth-grade classrooms will have a PTR of 30:1.

“Big class sizes districtwide, that’s what it’s going to equate to,” said Redoubt Elementary School principal John Pothast. “Our plan, at the elementary school level, is to continue doing everything we’re currently doing, but we’re going to do it with more kids in the classroom.”

Redoubt is faced with losing a total of four teachers next year, and Pothast said one of the toughest parts of his job is figuring out how to do more with less. Pothast said his school relies on volunteers to give students some individual attention when teachers aren’t able.

“The more adults we have working in the building with kids, the more we can give kids. When you have 30 kids in a classroom, it makes it really challenging for a teacher to do things like read one-on-one with a kid,” Pothast said.

Pothast said his staff has remained positive despite the looming cuts.

“To say you’re going to take two, three, four teachers out of a building, it’s a challenge, but I’ve been really impressed with our staff. We can’t control our circumstances, but we can control our attitude,” Pothast.

Pothast said the school is mobilizing parents to help on a different front — contacting legislators and letting them know the effect inadequate funding is going to have on peninsula schools.

“What we’re doing right now is talking with parents before this all happens. What we’re faced with is a Juneau issue. The borough has been tremendous with the district, and I think the school board has done well dealing with limited resources,” Pothast said. “We’re trying to get parents involved to let legislators know this is going to hurt.”

Seward Elementary principal David Kingsland said his school’s PTA has put contact information for legislators up on the school’s Web site. At the very least, he said, he’d like to see school funding keep up with inflation. Gov. Sarah Palin has proposed flat funding for education, despite the rising costs of things like utilities and transportation. Classroom supplies aren’t getting any cheaper, either.

“It’s hard to pay for next year’s supplies with last year’s money,” Kingsland said.

Kingsland said adding four students to classrooms challenges teachers beyond classroom management. Fewer staff members means a smaller pool of teachers to draw on for things like playground duty and organizing corcurricular and after-school activities.

“The remaining staff has to pick up the extra work,” Kingsland said, noting that teachers are plenty busy as it is. “They’re all full-time employees. I think if you go by any school on a Saturday or Sunday, you’re going to see a parking lot full of cars.”

Kingsland said most research indicates students perform better in smaller classes, and in the district’s budget survey conducted in December and January, 73 percent of respondents ranked reducing class sizes by hiring more teachers as the top way to spend funds and improve schools.

The situation is exacerbated in the district’s smallest schools, like Razdolna, where most teachers work in multi-grade classrooms. The testimony from parents of students in Razdolna echoed comments made to the board earlier this month, when a group of concerned parents from Moose Pass addressed the board. Moose Pass is slated to lose one teacher — a 50 percent cut — making the kindergarten though seventh-grade building a one-room school house.

“These aren’t all the small schools we’re going to hear from,” board member Bill Hatch said after listening to the Razdolna parents’ concerns.

Board members also urged the public to let legislators know education is important, whether their community includes small schools or large.

“I would beg all of you to help us by contacting your legislators,” board member Sammy Crawford said.

“We’ve been fortunate. We’ve got a district and a borough that’s doing what’s best for kids,” Pothast said. “We want Juneau to do the same thing.”

Will Morrow can be reached at will.morrow@peninsulaclarion.com.



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