School consolidation sparks disagreement

Posted: Friday, April 11, 2003

Elementary schools in Nikiski are bound to look different in the coming years, but just how different remains to be seen.

The Kenai Peninsula Borough School District and a group of parents are at odds over plans to consolidate North Star and Nikiski elementary schools. While conversations at a recent meeting to discuss the plans were thorough, the two groups are nowhere near agreement on the situation.

The district plans to close one of the two elementary schools and move all kindergarten through sixth-grade students into a single building in the 2004-05 school year. Either of the schools is big enough to hold all the elementary students in Nikiski, and closing one of the buildings would save the district at least $250,000 a year, superintendent Donna Peterson told the parents at a meeting Monday night.

Money was not the concern on many of the parents' minds, though. Rather, most of the 60 some parents who attended the meeting said they are worried about student achievement levels and school crowding. Many want to see both schools stay open and advocate a plan to reorganize the buildings into kindergarten-through-third-grade and fourth-through-sixth-grade groupings.

The reconfiguration plan is one area resident Holly Norwood firmly supports. Norwood is a parent of a student who attends Sears Elementary School in Kenai and has ties to the Nikiski community through past jobs. She also is studying to obtain her master's degree in public administration through the University of Alaska Southeast.

As part of her studies, Norwood recently completed a study on achievement levels in the district. Achievement levels, as measured by state mandated standardized testing, varies dramatically throughout the peninsula, she said. According to the scores from last year, Nikiski students tend to score lower than many other students in the district on the tests.

But, Norwood said, the variance in scores isn't as easily explained as one might think. She said her study found the various regions of the peninsula are consistent in poverty levels, parent education levels, class size and school size, meaning those factors did not cause the differences in student achievement.

Rather, the communities with higher test scores Homer and Kenai have separate elementary schools for primary grade levels and that is a part of the reason for the differences, Norwood said.

Her study relied on input from several area teachers who had taught in both primary-grade-only schools and larger elementary schools in the district. The study found the schools targeted specifically to younger students had much to offer, including a more focused use of resources, collaboration and intervention by teachers, a better ability to provide a foundation of social and emotional competence for students and more relevant teacher training, Norwood said.

Reorganizing the Nikiski schools into a similar configuration likely would improve student achievement, she said.

Peterson did not argue with the findings of the study. But, she said, student achievement can be fixed even if one of the schools is closed meeting the needs of both the parents and the district.

The school district is well aware of the test score discrepancies, and improved student achievement is a key goal in the Nikiski schools, she said. The district also is offering extensive summer school programs for students who need extra intervention. But, she added, the school district won't be able to accomplish its goals for any students if it doesn't deal with its budget problems.

"This isn't being done to you," she told the parents. "Hopefully, this will provide teachers and other resources for Nikiski."

The district is about $2.9 million short for its fiscal year 2004 budget. That shortfall comes even after cutting $1.4 million from the extracurricular activities budget, increasing the pupil-teacher ratio throughout the district and laying off about 56 teachers. Consolidation of schools simply is the next step, Peterson said.

And while the district's preliminary long-range plan for consolidation makes recommendations for closures and reconfigurations throughout the district, Nikiski is the first place where the closures are possible, due to the capacity of the buildings and the number of students, she said.

North Star and Nikiski elementary schools are both designed to serve about 500 students each. Next year, however, the two schools will have about 420 students combined, and enrollment projections continue to drop, Peterson said. The schools can efficiently serve the entire elementary population without overcrowding, she said. The pupil-teacher ratio would remain steady, and teachers would not have to be laid off in the move. Also, she said, since the borough owns the district's school buildings and is not likely to sell them, the district always would have the option to reopen the closed school if necessary.

In the meantime, however, the closure would save the district about $58,500 in utility costs, $85,000 in administration costs, $80,000 in custodians, $20,000 in secretaries and $20,000 in health insurance, as well as up to $50,000 in busing expenses.

Peterson said that though she heard the parents' concerns, she still plans to recommend the closure of one of the schools to the school board at its April 21 meeting. However, she noted, she does not make the final decision, and the community does have a role in the process.

The board will discuss the closure plan at a work session April 21, but likely will not take action until sometime this summer. Then, if it optes for closure, there will be a 12-month discussion and transition period to prepare the community for the change.

Peterson encouraged the parents at the meeting to take their concerns to the school board and to be a part of the decision-making process.

Norwood said the group plans to do just that. Before the meeting, the group had more than 100 signatures on a petition to keep the two schools open, she said. Though parents at the meeting asked solid questions about the closure plan, none opted to have their names removed from the forms, and three families added their names, Norwood said.

"I thought the outcome of the meeting was favorable to the position of keeping both schools," Norwood said. "These parents are fully aware of the state funding issues. The amount of money to keep both Nikiski schools open does not cost the district any more money. It simply doesn't save the district .3 percent of the total $80 million budget.

"We think the Nikiski student achievement is worth much more than that."

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