Nikiski residents voice concerns over issue

Consolidation draws debate

Posted: Wednesday, April 23, 2003

Nikiski residents crowded into the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District's Board of Education meeting Monday night to argue against a plan to consolidate the two north peninsula elementary schools into a single building.

The proposal to close one of the schools in the fall of 2004 is part of an updated preliminary school consolidation report presented to the board by Superintendent Donna Peterson on Monday night.

The report, which is a follow-up to a report presented to the board earlier this year, examines every school in the district to find ways to save money with school closures and to protect programs in spite of continuously decreasing enrollment.

The Nikiski closure is first on the list due to the low enrollment numbers at both North Star and Nikiski elementary schools, Peterson said. Each of the schools is built to hold 500 students, but by next fall the two schools will serve only about 417 students together.

Peterson said nationwide education research indicates a quality elementary school should serve 350 to 500 students. Enrollment numbers in that target range allow schools to offer "comprehensive programs," including music, art and physical education. In addition, she said closing one of the Nikiski schools would save the district about $250,000 a year.

But while Peterson said the plan benefits both the children and the district, Nikiski community members disagree.

Residents note that the schools don't just have enrollment problems, they also suffer from low test scores compared to the rest of the district. And few of the parents see how combining the two schools would improve that problem.

Holly Norwood, a Nikiski resident who recently completed a study of area schools for a graduate-level college class, said she believes reconfiguring the schools is a better way to handle student achievement problems. She said Homer and Kenai schools use a kindergarten-through-third and fourth-through-sixth grade model and like many of the parents at the meeting, she supports splitting the Nikiski schools into a similar configuration.

Norwood said the district's priority should be achievement and that the board needs to consider what's best for students, not just what costs the least.

"If you agree the priority is achievement, the next dollar you spend should be in Nikiski," she said. "We have the highest PTR (pupil-teacher ratio), the highest poverty level. There's no reason to believe consolidation is going to fix the problems."

Some residents also said they worry that consolidating the schools will cause overcrowding.

"I'm really concerned about having a large number of students in a school," said Rosemary Pilatti, a teacher and parent at North Star Elementary. "My concern is quality contact minutes, and I don't know how putting more students in a building will improve that."

Pilatti said she was drawing on her experiences teaching at Nikiski Elementary several years ago when the enrollment at the school was about 600 students.

Peterson noted, however, that enrollment has been decreasing for years and the trend shows no sign of slowing. The consolidation of the two schools would keep the remaining building well under capacity. She also said the consolidation would not change the district's PTR formula, meaning just because there would be more students in a building would not mean there would be more students in a classroom.

Several speakers also said they think the closure would be unfair to the Nikiski community.

"It seems like Nikiski is being singled out in carrying the brunt in trying to fix the (district's budget) problems," said Carl Cooper, a Nikiski resident and father of four.

"If physical capacity were the only consideration, you'd have to discuss other closures," Norwood agreed.

In fact, the consolidation report presented by Peterson does look at other closures districtwide.

Other points in the plan include:

Continuing kindergarten through 12th-grade education a Kachemak Selo, Nanwalek, Port Graham, Razdolna, Susan B. English, Niko-laevsk, Ninilchik, Voznesenka and Tebughna schools by implementing a rotating schedule and possible distance delivery for selected classes, instituting Project GRAD in interested schools and hiring content-area certified teachers;

Encouraging Moose Pass, Cooper Landing and Chapman seventh- and eighth-grade parents to move their children to regional middle schools and transferring all seventh- and eighth-graders in these schools to Seward, Soldotna and Homer middle schools by fall 2005 (one year later than in the original plan);

Continuing community conversations regarding Hope school;

Providing more direct district oversight for the Youth Detention Facility, Spring Creek, Kenai Alter-native and Homer Flex and changing the status of these locations from "school" to "program"; and

Continuing to monitor enrollment at all district schools and restart conversations when "trip points" are reached.

Peterson explained the finer points of the plan to the school board during a work session Monday afternoon and formally presented the report at the general meeting. The board was not scheduled to take official action on the report, but it did decide more conversations were in order.

Board members decided a work session and community conversation will be held during the next board meeting, which is in Seward on May 5. That work session will be targeted to address the points of the plan that deal specifically with schools in that region, including Seward and Moose Pass.

The board also asked Peterson to bring the plan forward as a recommendation at the June 2 meeting. Board members will vote on whether to approve the recommendations, then the district can continue working toward the changes. Later board action would be needed on any of the specific closures.

Board member Sammy Crawford said she admired the courage of each community member who came forward to address the board, but several of the board members had more blunt responses to the Nikiski residents.

Board member Nels Anderson said he took some exception to the testimony from residents.

"I'm a little offended by the insinuation that any member of the board doesn't have the children's interest first. Sometimes I'm a little thin skinned, because I know how much these people up here care about education," he said. "Personally, for me, consolidation is a slam dunk. It's in the best interest of the kids if you read the research. We will, in my opinion, consolidate a lot more in the next few years."

Board president and Nikiski resident Joe Arness said he was somewhat offended by the picture many of the speakers painted of his hometown.

"I don't mind discussion, but wouldn't it be great if it started with the facts rather than start with conclusions and work backward? All seven of my kids went to Nikiski schools, I'm an original graduate of Nikiski Elemen-tary. My kids got good educations. We don't need to parade around the rest of the borough saying how poorly our children are doing. ... It's not true," he said.

"To me, it's a simple question. I remain available to be swayed, but as a school district, it's hard to remain credible if we have two schools less than half full within five miles of each other and whine that we're broke."

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