The transition toward consolidation of Sears and Mountain View elementary schools in Kenai has been going well, Joe Arness, district facilitator for the steering committee overseeing the change, told the school board on Monday.
“I really believe what I have seen has been a lot less contentious than what I would have expected,” Arness told the school board during a worksession prior to Monday’s board meeting. “I think generally there is a sense that everyone has an opinion on whether this is something that should have happened or not, but it’s happening, so let’s make the best of it.”
Arness said the transition steering committee’s meetings have been kept very informal, and so far, the format has worked. Because a timeline for the move has been set in place, questions and concerns have dealt with very specific things.
“That’s not to say the process is without contention,” Arness said.
Staff members at each school, Arness said, are dealing with issues such as ownership of programs as well as anxieties of moving classrooms and buildings, and having it all done by a certain date.
Currently, the committee is in the midst of discussing a name change for the new kindergarten through fifth-grade school.
“That’s something I think is really important for those two groups to collaboratively decide,” Arness said.
One thing that has been decided is the new school’s administrator. District Superintendent Donna Peterson has selected current Sears Elementary principal John Cook to fill that role.
That decision brought quite a few people -- parents, former students and even grandparents of current and former Mountain View students -- to Monday’s school board meeting. The audience of about 150 people overflowed the assembly chambers in the borough building, and more than 30 people addressed the board during the public comment portion of the meeting.
Many spoke in support of Jim Dawson, the current Mountain View principal. Many praised his professionalism, dedication and his ability to connect with students. A frequently-told anecdote involved Dawson’s knack for being able to identify students by looking at their shoes.
Several speakers were critical of the decision not to hire Dawson or of the hiring process for the position. Others said they thought Dawson, a long-time educator in the district, was not treated fairly. Some asked the school board to take another look at Peterson’s decision.
The decision on a building administrator, however, is not part of the school board’s authority, Peterson said. The school board approves contracts for administrators, which it did at its Feb. 19 meeting, while the superintendent is responsible for making building assignments. Peterson said the selection process was outlined at the first meeting of the transition steering committee Feb. 22, three days after the decision to consolidate the schools was reached by the board. Peterson solicited comment on the characteristics a candidate for the position should have, but said the public was not entitled to make a personnel decision.
Peterson said the process was different than the regular administrator selection process because the situation is different. Peterson said she interviewed Dawson and Cook individually and together before making her selection. Should the board want more detail on why she chose Cook, Peterson said it would have to be done in executive session because personnel files are confidential.
Peterson said she tries to look for win-win situations when she makes tough decisions, but those have been hard to find across the district. Instead, she said she looked at this decision as “right-right” because both candidates considered for the job are quality individuals.
“The administration believes we made the right decision for the right reasons. We stand behind that decision,” Peterson said.
Peterson said the board would be overstepping its bounds if it chose to take action on her selection and added she would ask legal counsel to define the scope of the board’s authority in the matter should action be taken.
Board member Nels Anderson said the board’s responsibilities are to set the budget, set policy and hire and fire the superintendent. He said the responsibility of day to day operations within the district -- as well as the heat that comes with those decisions -- belongs to the superintendent.
Anderson expressed concern for the emotions raised by the issue.
“I didn’t anticipate this firestorm created over the principal issue. Frankly, knowing Mr. Dawson’s character, I’m surprised he hasn’t put a quash on this in the interest of kids,” Anderson said.
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