School closings nixed

Posted: Friday, April 14, 2000

Anxious parents can relax: The Kenai Peninsula Borough School District is abandoning the idea of closing schools to save money.

Wednesday, at the second meeting of the district's downsizing committee, Superintendent Donna Peterson said school closures are off the table and the committee should redirect its efforts.

"This isn't going to come up for a long time -- I hope," she told the principals, parents and administrators in the room.

School officials previously had discussed the possibility that the district might need to close or "consolidate" schools in the fall of 2001 or later to cut costs as funding and enrollment decline.

The suggestion provoked an outcry from the public and school staff. Communities told the district they would rather lose classes and services than see buildings close.

"We have heard from those folks, and they don't want their schools closed," Peterson said.

Finances were the other major factor.

Careful analysis revealed that closures would cost more money than they would save and cause legal and logistical problems, district officials told the committee.

Assistant Superintendent Patrick Hickey, the district's business manager, explained that smaller schools are more economical than big ones under current state laws on education funding.

"By the way the formulas are structured, it remains to our advantage to keep smaller schools and our kids dispersed," he said.

Education funding reforms the Legislature passed in 1998 give districts more money for students in smaller schools.

The peninsula's district has about 10,000 students spread among 40 schools. Projected school enrollments for next year range from 17 (Hope) to about 600 (Skyview High School).

The district would get the most money if it could spread its students evenly among all its schools, Hickey said.

He calculated that closing the school at Moose Pass and sending its students to Seward would cost the district about $190,000 in lost revenue. Merging Nikiski and North Star Elementary schools would cut funding about $480,000.

"It is not a good idea," he said.

Other ideas for saving money over the next several years remain under discussion. The committee is changing its focus to look at long-term ways for the district to economize.

For example, the same state formulas penalize charter and alternative schools. If the district closed Kenai Alternative and Homer Flex schools, moving their students into "annex" programs within Kenai Central and Homer high schools, the district would get $41,000 more. But, Hickey pointed out, that amount is only about 1/20th of 1 percent of the budget.

Likewise, moving the middle school grades at Nikiski out of the high school and into the elementary schools would save almost $60,000.

But even moving grades is controversial and difficult, Peterson said.

"What is right for the kids?" she asked the group.

The district may move attendance boundaries to distribute students more evenly among central peninsula schools.

Hickey recommended the district focus on ways to pare money from central office functions. He planned to meet today with borough Finance Director Jeff Sinz to discuss the option of merging warehouse and other centralized functions.

The borough has a history of being very supportive to the district, he said.

Borough assembly member Paul Fischer was at the meeting. He suggested that the borough could play a bigger role financing athletics, equipment repair, warehousing and other functions outside the classroom. The amount of money invested in young people's education would remain the same, but it would be accounted outside the school budget.

"You look at all kinds of ideas to do more things with less," he said.

The downsizing committee is abandoning its original mission, which was to develop criteria for how to close or merge schools. But the members decided it will be useful to continue meeting to discuss downsizing in a broader context.

The school board, at its March 27 meeting, instructed the administration to add two parents to the group.

Peterson and Hickey recommended that the group press ahead with a broader mission and broader representation. They also suggested the committee may get a new name, although what that might be was not decided.

They set the next meeting of what Peterson called "the rejuvenated, redirected, renamed committee" for May 30 at 2 p.m. at the superintendent's office.

The meetings are open to the public.

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