The Kenai Peninsula Borough School District Board of Education continued budget conversations Monday and likely will do so for many weeks to come, despite the impending deadline for approving a balanced budget.
The board is scheduled to re-ceive and vote on a proposed balanced budget at its next meeting, April 5, though revisions are likely as the Legislature develops education funding for the coming year.
In the meantime, the district must cut about $3.5 million from its budget for the 2004-05 school year. That's down from the $6.7 million deficit with which the district started this fall.
Among the most talked about of the recent proposed cuts both in public and at Monday's meetings is a change to Quest, the district's program for talented and gifted students.
No longer mandated by state law, the Quest program has been targeted for cuts both for financial and efficiency purposes, according to some administrators. The proposal discussed by the board Monday afternoon would cut the program to six positions, filled by teachers who would travel from school to school as "facilitators" to help identify students for the program, create individualized learning plans for participants and provide instruction to other teachers on how to meet the needs of students with varied ability levels within a traditional classroom.
While the plan could save more than $415,000 in the district, public testimony at Monday night's general board meeting indicated it is not popular with the public. About 16 individuals mostly Quest teachers and parents of Quest students, as well as a few students took the opportunity to speak at the meeting. Almost all spoke out against the proposed cuts.
Amy McVee, a parent of a Quest student at Redoubt Elementary, said her son benefits both from his traditional classroom time and the extra attention and challenges he receives in the Quest classroom he visits four times a week.
She said she realizes there is some controversy as to how best to deliver services to gifted students, but she said her child has flourished in the existing program.
"The current model is efficient and cost effective," she said. "The program that exists is a good one, please keep this and other programs intact."
McVee's son, Patrick, a first-grader, also sat before the board to share his thoughts.
"I learn things I wouldn't get to learn, like German, medieval and simple machines," he said.
Sarah Youngren, a Soldotna High School senior in the program, also gave her two cents.
"You're looking at a product of the Quest program, a 4.0 student who loves school," she said. "In the regular classroom, sometimes it's hard to find a level everyone can reach. Sometimes, it's so much below what we're capable of."
Through Quest, Sarah said she's had an opportunity to take correspondence courses in topics of her interest and has excelled.
"I appreciate having that opportunity," she said, adding that she hopes her younger brother, also in the program, will have similar opportunities in the future.
Quest teachers also advocated for the program.
Brian Bailey, a Quest teacher in Nikiski, said the program is necessary to challenge students who could otherwise "coast" in a traditional classroom. He also is a product of the district's Quest program.
"I don't know what I would have done without it," he said. "It was invaluable for me."
Quest teachers emphasized the importance of the program, not only to challenge high-achieving students, but also to meet the needs of students who may think differently or be ostracized for being smart.
But, they said, they also understand the need for cuts in the district's current budget crisis.
Cindy Romberg, for example, said Quest teachers have proposed ways to slim down the program without hurting services. Those proposals haven't seen the light of day, she said.
"We gave input. None of it is in this plan," she said. "There are many other plans and options that are cost effective."
Jim Bennett, another Quest teacher, agreed.
"We're not afraid to take cuts; we're not afraid to look at the program," he said. "We want to be part of the process. We have submitted plans. Don't shut us out of the process."
School board members had little to say in response to the allegations that teachers' plans weren't taken into account, but many had their own reservations about the cuts.
They said the change would leave the existing Quest staff to teach teachers, rather than students, and that the needs of the students may fall through the cracks.
Roy Anderson, the district's director of special education, said the idea is to teach all teachers to differentiate instruction to all levels of students, thereby serving more students in the long run.
"It's a good theory," said board President Deb Germano. "But a lot of regular classroom teachers believe (Quest) is an elitist program. I don't understand how attitudes and behaviors are going to change with so few people."
Board member Nels Anderson said he sees the new plan as a staff development model, which may be useful to teachers in the district and may trickle down to some students.
"But will it meet the needs of the kids? I don't know," he said.
Many board members also had concerns about talented and gifted students in upper grade levels. The new Quest plan would focus the attention of the six "facilitators" on kindergarten through eighth-grade instruction and leave middle and high school students to get their enrichment from advanced placement and honors classes classes some board members said don't even exist.
"Give me an example of one AP or honors class at a middle school in this district," board member Margaret Gilman challenged.
Administrators had few answers.
"It seems we're assuming services are there and they're not," Gilman said.
Other concerns included the methods of identifying students and developing individual learning plans for students with so few staff members.
Still, the future of the Quest program remains to be seen. The board took no action on the Quest plan and likely won't until it examines the proposed balanced budget that will be presented in a couple of weeks. At that time, the board will have the opportunity to make changes to the proposed budget on a line-by-line basis.
But even then, budget discussions likely won't be finished.
That's because the revenue side of the budget which comes mostly from the state won't be certain until after the Legislature and governor sign off on next year's state education funding.
At present, there are a number of bills in the Legislature dealing with funding; one rather large increase passed the House last week. It now is before the Senate for review.
But, as chief financial officer Melody Douglas warned, the district can't count on that money until it's signed into law.
The district already has taken a somewhat risky step by accounting for a $94 per student increase in the base student allocation the smallest of the increases before the Legislature.
"You could always tell us to use another false revenue number," Superintendent Donna Peterson said somewhat facetiously, pointing out that any number currently in the revenue side of the budget is "false" until funding is finalized.
Douglas said counting money before it is definite is always risky.
"We could entertain the conversation," she said. "But I would wait until the ink dries."
In the meantime, the board likely will put through a balanced budget at its next meeting with a number of cuts that could be reinstated after funding is finalized.
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