Agencies told to study school consolidation

Posted: Friday, June 06, 2003

JUNEAU (AP) Two state agencies are looking at whether Alaska's smallest school districts should be combined with other districts.

Gov. Frank Murkowski and Senate Finance Co-Chairman Gary Wilken, R-Fairbanks, are pushing the consolidation idea, which is almost certain to be opposed by many of the communities that would be affected.

''Very frankly, we have too many school districts in this state,'' Murkowski said at a recent news conference. ''I know it's very nice for each community to have its own district, but there are certain limits to how we can best spend our dollars, and we can reduce substantially administrative expenses.''

Wilken included language in the state budget calling for the Department of Education and Early Development and the Local Boundary Commission to look at opportunities for consolidation, particularly in districts with fewer than 250 students. The agencies are to report back to the Legislature in February 2004.

Seventeen of Alaska's 53 school districts have fewer than 250 students, said School Finance Manager Eddie Jeans.

Wilken said the study might lead to legislation combining districts, perhaps as part of a rewrite of the state's overall school funding formula. But he said he's really just looking for information right now.

''This is really a baby step to see if there are some consolidation options out there,'' Wilken said. ''It's always been a bit of concern to me that we have so many school districts for so few children.''

In particular, he questions the need for four school districts on Prince of Wales Island Craig, Klawock, Hydaburg and Southeast Island Schools. All but Craig have fewer than 250 students.

''That's sort of the poster child for consolidation,'' Wilken said. ''Why couldn't school districts get together and use common payroll, common personnel, common purchasing departments?''

Other districts with fewer than 250 students are Pelican, Aleutian Region, Tanana, Chugach, Skagway, Pribilof, Yakutat, Kake, St. Mary's, Hoonah, Nenana, Chatham, Bristol Bay and Galena. Galena and Nenana have larger enrollments if correspondence students are counted.

Several of those districts are in Rep. Albert Kookesh's Southeast Alaska legislative district, and he's not happy with the talk of consolidation.

It threatens local control and raises a community's fears about losing its school, which is often the central gathering place where activities from basketball games to dances take place, said Kookesh, an Angoon Democrat.

''It's the lifeblood of the community,'' Kookesh said. ''Everything centers around the school.''

Klawock Superintendent Richard Carlson believes any savings in administration would be eaten up in transporting students and remodeling buildings.

And he does not believe education would be improved. Klawock is proud of its school, which has produced doctors, lawyers and graduates of prestigious East Coast colleges, Carlson said.

''The people of Klawock are fiercely independent and feel very strongly that they should have the authority to run their own school,'' Carlson said.

It's not clear that consolidating school districts would save the state a lot of money.

Under the state school funding formula, districts receive money based on the number of students they have, so the state would spend about the same amount of money, regardless of which rural district those students attend, Jeans said. However, he said, if the combined districts had lower administrative costs, more money might reach the classroom.

A 1992 Legislative Budget and Audit report found that about $5.3 million in administrative costs might be saved by consolidating schools that are not in organized boroughs. That was about 1 percent of what the state was spending then on its school funding formula.

The report concluded that ''relatively modest'' savings was not enough to warrant extensive restructuring of the state's education system and the loss of local control.

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