Atwater reflects on 1st year: KPBSD superintendents focus is technology, funding, collaboration

Posted: Monday, March 29, 2010

One year ago this past week, the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District Board of Education hired Steve Atwater, who had been working as an assistant superintendent to Donna Peterson for the previous nine months, to lead in her place after she left in June. While Atwater didn't officially take the reins until July 1, 2009, the transition began immediately.

Photo By Dante Petri
Photo By Dante Petri
Steve Atwater, superintendent for the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District, speaks about his highs and lows in his first year at the helm of the district on Tuesday.

The Clarion interviewed Atwater last week on his experiences over the past year and asked him to grade himself on his work so far.

Peninsula Clarion: What were some of the goals you had coming into your position a year ago?

Steve Atwater: The first one that I was really interested in is that the school district in many ways operates as a bunch of independent schools and I don't feel that we rely well enough on each other or utilize our collective strength well enough.

One of my biggest goals is to cause a greater level of collaboration among the sites, among the teachers and among the principals so that we can all benefit from our collective wisdom.

The second goal was to try and bring our schools up to snuff in terms of using technology.

The way our students learn today is rapidly changing. The kids are all digital natives of course, and what I recognize is that when the kids walk into the classroom in many ways they're going backwards in time.

The school was less connected, less technologically current as was their home. So we spent an awful lot of money and fortunately the stimulus act came along at an appropriate time because we've really been investing in our schools and getting them much more current with technology.

All of our schools are now wireless to begin to shift teachers away from an instructional dependence on a computer lab that was down the hall that was accessed once a week or whenever, to being able to use computers much more seamlessly.

The third goal was to increase our efficiency by quality processes. We spent time last spring training with total quality management practices that help us become more streamlined as a district and more efficient, and we did not force that or make that a mandate, rather we just introduced it and in some places it has really caught on and in other places it hasn't taken off at all. So we do have a grassroots movement with using quality processes and learning tools and I think we're kind of getting our roots in the ground if that's the right way to say it. I think that that's helping us to be a stronger district.

PC: What are some issues that have come up in the past year that you didn't anticipate?

SA: I think the biggest thing I've encountered is our district is very difficult to get to. I think that I didn't understand that the diversity and size of our district would be as challenging as it is to effectively lead. I'm not able to maintain a presence or establish a presence at all the communities and all of the schools as well as I would like to. I think it's critical to be there and be a visible part of day-to-day activities. That to me has been the hardest part; that I can't just drive to Seward in 20 minutes and come back for lunch.

That to me was unanticipated and that to me is frustrating.

It's hard to make inroads as well as I'd like to because of that.

PC: Did recent criticism directed toward the district's laissez-faire area attendance boundary policy come as a surprise?

SA: I think the interest of having an open area attendance, where kids can go to school wherever they choose, is positive.

I think what we need to do is to differentiate between offerings at schools, which is what we're trying to do at SoHi and Skyview, so that the choice becomes not so much social, but more academic, and not so much one of convenience but more what will help us prepare for the future.

It's an on going issue.

The downside of the open area attendance is that the principals are forced to compete for students because of that.

As we work this year to really downplay the competitive intersite recruiting of students that's gone on in the past, I've directed all the principals that they can't use comparative data when advertising their schools. If they're going to say their enrollment data is such and such, they can't come out and say that they have the highest test scores in Soldotna, or whatever.

I don't think that's fair to make those disparaging type of remarks against one of our schools.

It's interesting, in that a lot of the identity that people have with schools I think was fostered in the '80s and '90s. I don't believe that it's as prevalent with the students as it is with the parents. I think the kids are more ready to let go of some of that.

PC: The attendance policy has been brought up as a concern at other times in the past year, as well, what do you make of those situations?

SA: With regard to crowding in schools, the policy does limit you.

(A school) can't take out-of-area kids once (the school) exceeds 90 percent of capacity, but the issue is, do you then force kids that are already out-of-area attendance, they're kind of grandfathered in, do you force them out.

So that was the hard part at Kalifornsky Beach, and to a lesser extent Mountain View, where we have buildings that are very full.

So that's been kind of the hard part too because I think that the stance of the board (of education) is a good one, that we want to provide choice to parents.

I think that's positive, but when a school does reach capacity it means that you have to turn kids away, and what do you do when you get more kids, then do you go backwards and say you've got to go back to a school that you've never been to?

PC: We hear often that the district has a good relationship with the Kenai Peninsula's delegation in Juneau. Could you provide some examples of how the legislators understand the district's unique financial situation?

SA: The notable one is the three-year funding plan that was put into place that we're just finishing next year. I think that our representatives were instrumental in making that happen. I think that the area cost differential that is now being adjusted upwards for our district was for years kind of a sore spot for us, that we weren't able to secure enough funding.

There was kind of a misrepresentation that we're just kind of slightly more expensive than Anchorage when in fact we're quite a bit more expensive than Anchorage to operate our schools.

The other piece about the legislators is that they're very receptive to the school district. They call me and ask me questions all the time and get my input. I think that that speaks to their willingness to include us and not just work with the borough. They also meet with the school board and work with them very well, too.

PC: Could you explain the proposed use of approximately $2 million from the district's unreserved fund balance to meet revenue shortfalls for the district's 2010-2011 budget?

How long can the district continue to rely on these reserves?

SA: The big piece with regard to sustainability is that the cost differential will keep going up. We'll be able to have a greater level of revenue because of that. That will offset some of what we're spending now. So the plan is to put aside money to spend with the idea that by 2013 when the cost differential is all in place, that we'll be somewhat better balanced.

It's true that the offerings that we have for our students are good and it's solid, but it's also not extravagant in any way.

We feel that it's imperative that we don't go backwards from those offerings, that we don't eliminate pieces of what we're doing, that the kids deserve every bit of that.

The difficult piece of that, of budgeting for education, is that it goes up every year pretty much because of salary schedules, and there's no way to get around that piece, unless you were to freeze salaries, which would not go over very well.

I know as the public looks at our budget as something that's increasing, they also need to understand that we're just essentially maintaining our level of service. We're not doing anything other than that, we're not creating brand-new programs and we would very much like to create brand-new programs.

PC: Did you get the impression that following the discussion that took place last spring when the borough administration said they were not willing to provide full local funding to the district, that this was an indicator of how area taxpayers felt as well?

SA: Certainly the economic climate is harder than it's been. There's no question that the tax revenue for the borough is down in some respects in terms of sales tax is really down. The district does not pretend that that's not the case. We're respectful of the borough and their need to maintain adequate budgeting, but we still feel that they can afford to fund us to the cap.

Hopefully they'll do so, and if they don't, then hopefully they'll give us every bit that they can.

The big thing for me is that the borough maintains education as its number one priority.

PC: As the amount of state funding the district receives has increased, it has also driven up the maximum amount of funding the borough can provide to the district per state statute, known as the cap, will the district reach a position where it might ask less of the borough because of this?

SA: Because our costs are increasing we also need to ensure that our revenue increases as well. The question that came up last year is, when is enough enough?

I heard that several times: "Well when are you guys going to be done with what you need?"

I think that the children of our borough deserve as much as we possibly can give them in terms of educational opportunities, so I would suggest that really there is no cap.

We'll make due with whatever we receive, but I think that our kids are special enough that they deserve everything we can.

If you have a child and you have the opportunity to give them an experience that will help them become a stronger and better person then you want to do that and I think that we want to be in the same situation that we can do everything that we can to help them prepare for what's after school, and not be satisfied with just the very minimum or just the basics.

Again I'm sympathetic to the idea that the borough is spending more and more of our money on education, and if they can't afford to give us more, then that's their call, but we'll continue to ask for everything we can because we don't fell we're giving everything we can to our kids.

Obviously there's a finite amount that can be given and we're not nave, we understand that we're not going to get everything, but we're going to continue to ask for as much as we can for our kids because we feel they deserve it.

PC: Last year there were also concerns that communication between the borough administration and the district was in need of improvement. Has there been any progress on this issue and if so what?

SA: My leadership team meets with the mayor regularly. We've had a good open communication, we regularly share e-mails with one another on a variety of issues. Overall I feel that the communication is pretty good. I do meet regularly with the Assembly President Pete Sprague, so I have a communication with him, too. We've been fortunate to have several of the assembly members come to dinner with us as a school board and that's been really nice to get to know them away from the work session type of environment. So overall I think that is an improved relationship that we have.

PC: How do you see that relationship being improved further?

SA: I think we could probably meet more often. We meet once a month and I think we could be meeting maybe twice a month, but then there have been impromptu meetings that I've asked for that we've had, so the mayor is receptive.

I see the mayor as wanting to work with us. I also see the mayor as being very cautious with regard to funding. It's relatively tight times.

PC: District officials also expressed last spring that there needed to be a greater level of communication with the community at large. How has the district approached this?

SA: I think the thought was that we weren't getting our message out well enough.

I think we've made a more concerted effort to do that this year, to celebrate our successes and share what we're doing.

We were able to secure a full-time communications person. I've encouraged all the schools to offer communication on what it is that they're doing and how to celebrate their successes and that's the thing that we probably could do more of.

We have a lot of really good things going on at our schools where our kids are getting awards and accolades. I don't know if the public fully appreciates all of those pieces as well as they might.

I'm looking forward to doing an interactive blog type environment with the public so I can have a more seamless communication in terms of what we're doing at this level.

We're rolling out a new Web site in July.

PC: What are some goals that you have heading into year two?

SA: For myself I think it's to continue to get to know the stakeholders.

Obviously it's a very large district in terms of getting to know everyone.

For instance, I'm hoping to meet with the police chief over in Seward on Friday. I haven't met with him yet, so I think that my goal is to continue on that level, and really to secure input from the community.

In September we're going to have an employee summit, we're bringing together employers from around the borough as well as some statewide employers just to talk to us about what we need to be doing as a school district to prepare our kids for the world of work, and for what's next in their lives.

I think that's one of my efforts, to expand my effort to include stakeholders on what it is that we're doing, to help really drive what it is that we're doing next, and not just go on the assumption that what we're doing is fine.

PC: If you could go back a year, is there anything you might tell yourself to do differently?

SA: I think the hardest part of this job is that it tends to push you away from the day-to-day involvement at the classroom level, which is what we do.

I don't know how to get at that easily because it's hard to, but I think that I need to make sure that I do spend more time, or at least make sure that I have a better contact with the teachers on a more regular basis. I think that the most invigorating part of working as an administrator is when you get to talk to teachers and when you get to visit with kids. So that would be my goal.

PC: If you had to grade yourself on your work over the past year, what would you give yourself and why?

SA: Well, true teachers would have a rubric or something to work from (laughed). I think overall I would grade myself as a B.

I've done a good job at getting things going.

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