Consolidation receives unanimous vote

Posted: Wednesday, June 04, 2003

The consolidation of Nikiski and North Star elementary schools became a lock Monday night after a unanimous vote from the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District's Board of Education.

The vote approved a plan to close Nikiski Elementary School in the fall of 2004 and move all Nikiski students in kindergarten through sixth grade to North Star Elementary.

The closure is expected to save the district about $250,000 a year, and district officials say the consolidation will positively impact students by allowing a more comprehensive program.

The arrival of summer was evident Monday night, as only about 25 community members turned out for the school board meeting, compared to the standing-room-only crowds that have packed meetings throughout the school year.

And though the consolidation plan has drawn some criticism from a group of parents, only four people opted to speak on the matter, two opposing the consolidation and two supporting it.

"There has been some talk about the school board's fiduciary duties," said Holly Norwood, a Kenai parent who has adamantly opposed the consolidation. "More important is your moral duty."

Norwood repeatedly has come before the school board arguing that students in Nikiski already suffer from lower achievement levels than students in other parts of the district, and that combining the two schools would have a negative impact on students.

She and other parents, who call themselves the Nikiski Area Student Achievement Interest Group, favor keeping both schools open and reconfiguring the facilities into kindergarten-through-third-grade and fourth-through-sixth grade buildings.

Monday night, she presented a chart of poverty levels in 13 schools throughout the district. The levels ranged from 27.7 percent to 55.5 percent, with Nikiski Elementary topping out the chart.

"The special needs (of the Nikiski-area students) will not be solved by cramming all the students into one building," she said.

Jennie Hammond, a Nikiski parent and member of the NASAIG, agreed and, though the district has worked with the site councils of the two elementary schools and held a well-attended community forum on the consolidation, Hammond asked the board to postpone the vote for another month so other Nikiski residents could weigh in on the matter.

Two other Nikiski residents were in favor of the closure.

Connie Wirz, director of the Cuya Qyut'anen Head Start in Kenai, said the consolidation of the two schools will provide a richer curriculum for students.

"When students have the opportunity to have music, PE, and more art, they have a much stronger, broader foundation," she told the board. "I know it's an unpopular thing to look at, but I support you."

According to the district, the combination of the two Nikiski and North Star students will bring a combined enrollment high enough to allow for more "specialists" at the consolidated school. Specialists include music and physical education teachers, as well as librarians.

Mike Peak of Nikiski agreed with Wirz's stance.

"Everyone is waiting to see what's going to happen. Most everyone I've talked to realizes something needs to happen," he said.

Though he said he would rather have students at Nikiski Elementary, which is closer the the Nikiski pool and recreation center, he said he supported the consolidation.

"You need a bigger group of kids to offer more activities," he said.

District administrators and the school board have been discussing consolidation plans for several months. A preliminary long-range plan to consolidate schools throughout the district was made public in January and looked at several different ways to combine and close schools.

The district maintains consolidation not only will save money, but also will allow for more comprehensive programs for students. Small schools often can provide only the basics of instruction, while larger schools can offer a wider range of programs, such as music or vocational education.

Declining enrollment also makes the consolidations reasonable, as many schools are below their target enrollment levels. For example, Nikiski and North Star elementary schools each are designed to hold 500 students. The projected enrollment for the 2004-05 school year is 410 students combined.

The board voted 6-0 in favor of the Nikiski consolidation plan, with board member Debra Mullins excused from the meeting.

"Consolidation is not something any of us want to do," said board member Sammy Crawford, reflecting on the option. "I wish we lived in better times, had better decisions to make, but we don't."

Board member Margaret Gilman agreed that the decision was difficult.

"We're closing one of the oldest schools in the district," said the former teacher, who spent several years as a Quest instructor at Nikiski Elementary School.

But, she added, "I think as difficult of a decision as this was, I truly believe it will be a positive thing for students. I believe a comprehensive curriculum is needed."

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