Homer charter school won't get more space

District says yes, but school board votes no

Posted: Thursday, March 06, 2008

Despite Kenai Peninsula Borough School District Superintendent Donna Peterson's recommendation that Fireweed Academy be given an additional classroom at West Homer Elementary School, and after multiple attempts at motions to do just that, the school board Monday night finally just said no.

"The part that's really disconcerting to me was that last year we made the same request and at the last minute the superintendent recommended that we not be given the room and she gave no reason for that. She didn't do a space analysis or evaluate any of it in a transparent way for the public," said Kiki Abrahamson, Fireweed's lead teacher. "This year it was the same request, they did a thorough study of space issues and the superintendent did, in fact, recommend that there was space available and this time the board ignored the superintendent's recommendation. I find that baffling."

Nikiski board member Deb Mullins' motion that Fireweed be allowed continued use of the four classrooms it currently occupies and that the remainder of the building be used collaboratively between West Homer and Fireweed received "yes" votes from Liz Downing of Homer, Sunni Hilts of Seldovia, Marty Anderson of Sterling, Nels Anderson of Soldotna and Mullins. Opposing the motion were Bill Hatch of Kenai, Debbie Brown of Kasilof and Lynn Hohl of Seward.

Fireweed Academy, the only charter school on the southern Kenai Peninsula, offers classes for 76 third- through sixth-grade students. It was founded in 1997 and, in the fall of 2004, received board approval to move out of two portable buildings next to Paul Banks Elementary School, and into four classrooms at West Homer Elementary. Peterson's recommendation that Fireweed be given Room 108 in WHES would have made it possible for Fireweed to expand its program to include kindergarten through second grade during the 2008-2009 school year, a step toward its goal of a 150-student K-12 enrollment.

"What this means is that for 30 families in Homer, kindergarten K-2 at Fireweed is not an option at this point," Janet Bowen, Fireweed's administrative secretary and the parent of a Fireweed student, said Tuesday. "That is the number of kids that had applications in to us that if we were given the space, they were interested in the K-2 room."

Of those expressing an interest, 12 have siblings already attending Fireweed and 18 would be new to the school. The new students would be coming from across the southern peninsula, near Paul Banks Elementary and Chapman schools, Otter Beach Learning Center, private preschools, Head Start and home-school situations.

Prior to the board's vote Monday night, a steady stream of parents approached the Mariner Theatre microphone to share their views about Fireweed's request.

Those opposing the request and the administration's recommendation questioned what would happen if West Homer faced an unexpected increase in enrollment in 2008-2009, similar to that experienced at the beginning of the current school year. WHES parents pointed to the difference in pupil teacher ratio, with the Fireweed program developed for fewer students per teacher than the district's ratio for neighborhood schools including WHES.

"My children are long out of school, but if they were in a classroom of 24 students next to a classroom with 17 or 18, I'd be furious," said Milli Martin, a former school board member who represents the southern Kenai Peninsula on the borough assembly.

Impassioned pleas for denying Fireweed's request for the additional classroom and the resulting shuffle of other space also came from parents of students served by the special education programs offered at WHES and from parents of those who would be most directly impacted by the loss of Room 108 below-grade level students who work with an interventionist to help catch up with their on-grade level peers. A decision with that sort of impact would be "reckless and irresponsible," according to WHES parent Bob Romanko.

Fireweed parents also took to the microphone.

"You have to look at the bigger picture," Fireweed parent Charlie Gibson said. "If you do that, you'll see West Homer has room to move ... to adapt."

After listening to public testimony, several attempts were made by the board to accommodate Fireweed's request and the administration's recommendation. A suggestion from Brown to postpone action on the request until the April 14 board meeting brought a negative response from the audience and from the board.

"We need to take a vote tonight," Nels Anderson said.

Repeatedly, support for both WHES and FWA was expressed. The need for Fireweed to develop a long-range plan also was emphasized, with Downing urging that a plan for its own space be prepared by the charter school within the next year.

"The energy going into short-term fixes needs to go into long-term solutions," Downing said.

On Tuesday, Walsworth reflected on the board's decision.

"My opinion was that there are needs of the West Homer community better served in (room) 108, but now we have a K-2 program out there for Fireweed that needs a home," Walsworh said. Referring to development of a long-range plan, he added, "My hope is that this will create an opportunity that may be better than what they could have had here."

Abrahamson said Fireweed's search for space will continue.

"We look at our organization as being a 'can do' organization. We're trying to solve problems, make things work rather than say we can't do this, can't do that," she said. "It's just really hard to work under those circumstances when you're a 'can do' school and faced with a 'can't do' organization."

McKibben Jackinsky can be reached at mckibben.jackinsky@homernews.com.

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