School closings weighed

Posted: Thursday, May 09, 2002

As the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District walks the tightrope to balance its budget each year, some recurring questions arise.

Should the district cut co-curricular activities such as sports and music? What would happen if class sizes increased? And when is it time to close a school?

The latter, said district Superintendent Donna Peterson, is a tough question that can't be answered without lots of discussion and calculation.

But seven schools have been identified as possibilities for closure, including two in the central peninsula: Soldotna Elementary and Nikiski Elementary schools. Peterson cautioned people who may react strongly to this news that this does not mean the district will close any of the schools.

"I think people need to know that the district is not slated to close any of these schools," she said, adding that before the district moved ahead with any plans, a long community discussion period would occur.

She also emphasized that funding factors such as future enrollment trends and state funding may put off or eliminate the need to discuss school closures.

Unlike the other potential budget-reducers, the district can't close a school without following certain guidelines set by the state. And students won't be added to another school's population unless the total population is less than 85 percent of the school's capacity, allowing for future enrollment increases.

If any schools are closed, savings would only be found from the cost of maintaining the facility, since teachers would simply transfer to the new school with the students. In addition, the state's funding formula favors small single-site schools.

"Our next logical step is to figure out what the hard and fast savings would be," Peterson said.

The district identified a total of seven schools based on those parameters alone and has yet to investigate whether savings would be great enough to warrant closing the sites.

Based on projected enrollment figures, closing Soldotna Elementary and transferring students to Redoubt and Kalifornsky Beach elementary schools would not be possible in the foreseeable future, though Nikiski Elementary's students could be moved to North Star Elementary in 2005. Cooper Landing School could be closed, and students could transfer to Sterling as early as 2003, according to enrollment, but preliminary investigation reveals that the savings would be minimal.

Other possibilities around the peninsula include closing Homer's Paul Banks Elementary and sending students to West Homer Elementary in 2006 or closing Razdolna School and moving students to McNeil Canyon Elementary and Homer's middle and high schools in 2004. Moose Pass students could transfer to Seward schools in 2003, but as with the Cooper Landing-Sterling proposal, savings would be minimal. According to enrollment alone, Homer's Chapman School could be currently combined with Paul Banks, West Homer and/or Homer Middle without exceeding the 85 percent capacity figure.

Peterson said the first step is for the school board to discuss the idea and identify what locations may need further scrutiny.

"I want to hear from (the board)," she said. "I want to know at what point it is worth it. I think it is possible the board will say we don't want to do any of these things."

If the board decides to look further at the potential gains and ramifications of any of the school closures, that study will not likely start until the fall, Peterson said.

The other two savings options -- cutting activities completely and increasing class sizes -- have serious striking points against them already. If the district completely eliminated all co-curricular activities in every school, the move would only save the district less than 1 percent of its operating budget, Peterson said, barely enough to cover the cost of one year's salary increases.

The second option, increasing class sizes, received a scathing review from the school board already, Peterson said.

"The board is just adamant that they are not going to increase class sizes," she said.

These three savings options aren't the only ideas currently being explored by the district. Next year, Cooper Landing School and Moose Pass School will share a principal.

Peterson said there are many factors that may change future action of the district, but at this point, discussion is warranted.

"We are starting by laying this basic information out for folks, then having a quality discussion about our options," she said. "We wouldn't be very prudent if we didn't talk about these things."

Carey James is a reporter for the Homer News. Peninsula Clarion reporter Jenni Dillon contributed to this story.

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