Tough school decisions need to be considered

Posted: Friday, June 06, 2008

It's a hard question, and ignoring it won't make it go away.

At this week's school board meeting, school district finance officer Melody Douglas said she had been asked by a member of the borough assembly about school consolidation, specifically at the high school level in the Kenai-Soldotna area. Finances are tight, costs are rising and, at some point, the borough may not be willing to fund the school district to the maximum limit allowed under state law, something the borough has always done.

Over the past decade, no single issue has caused as much angst and heartache -- for the school board, the district administration and the public -- as the topic of school consolidation. District enrollment has been declining steadily, and there is nothing in the projections to indicate a change in that trend.

Two communities have been through school consolidation in the past four years -- Nikiski and North Star elementary schools merged into Nikiski North Star in 2004, and Sears and Mountain View elementary schools in Kenai recently completed their first school year as a consolidated Mountain View Elementary School. The district has looked at consolidation elsewhere on the peninsula, though no other action has been taken.

While the end results have been positive, merging elementary schools, even ones in the same community, has been a gut-wrenching process. Each move has exposed a host of underlying issues that have, at times, been divisive.

Now imagine doing that at the high school level, where people are even more passionate in their school loyalty. No doubt school board meetings would have to be moved from the assembly chambers in the Borough Building to a high school auditorium to accommodate the crowds.

The school district always has lived within its means. The school board does not have taxing power; that authority lies with the borough, state and federal governments. The district budget is determined by the funding those bodies provide; the school board and administration make expenditures match revenue, even if it means cutting programs or laying off staff.

The pressure of rising costs and a static budget has forced administrators to become efficiency experts in addition to their role as educators.

As for consolidation, the administration for the past decade has been compiling reports on possible savings obtained by closing schools and acted where it deemed merging schools would be beneficial.

At the moment, district enrollment projections support keeping all four central peninsula high schools -- Kenai, Skyview, Soldotna and Nikiski -- open, according to Superintendent Donna Peterson.

But, the population of the Kenai Peninsula is getting older. Fewer than 25 percent of peninsula residents have kids in the school system. Somewhere down the road, the declining enrollment that necessitated consolidating elementary schools will hit our high schools.

What then?

Debate at the school board meeting centered around hiring an outside consultant to assess the situation. As one board member put it, that would be money spent to tell us what we already know. While an outside consultant might deflect some of the heat, it's still the board and administration that will decide if closing a school is the best option.

The end goal is to provide our kids with the best education possible. We want to be able to make decisions based on academic principles rather than budget dictates, but the truth is we can't spend money we don't have.

If consolidating high schools means more and better opportunities for our kids, then we owe it to them to work through the emotion of school consolidation and make a tough decision.

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