Cuts change atmosphere

Posted: Friday, June 07, 2002

Sears Elementary School veteran secretary Karen Mahurin is leaving the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District on a bittersweet note.

"This school is part of my core," Mahurin said. "But for the first time since I've worked here, I'm really worried about the future of public education, not only in this district, but in Alaska," Mahurin said.

Mahurin has worked at Sears for 22 years but decided to take an early retirement option offered by the district after learning that Sears' support staff would be cut from three secretaries down to one.

Though Mahurin said she was confident the new secretary would work hard to maintain a positive and efficient school office, she said the lack of help will undoubtedly change the school atmosphere.

"One person cannot do it right and do it well," Mahurin said.

While decreasing enrollment is as much a reality at Sears as throughout the rest of the district, Mahurin said the kindergarten through second-grade school still registers more new students than any other school in the area.

"One-third of those students are first-time kindergartners, which means first-time parents with a lot of mixed emotions about sending their 5-year-olds to school," she said.

"For first-time parents walking in the door giving us their babies at 5 years old, we need to nurture a relationship," reiterated secretary Carole Nolden, who will move to Kenai Middle School as a result of the cuts.

That means that the secretary's job is far more than paperwork -- it's building relationships with families, Mahurin said.

"My philosophy when I took this position was to remember what it's like to be a parent on the other side of the counter. The school office should be the living room of the school with the welcome mat always out," she said. "By cutting the office to only one secretary, it is going to make it impossible to establish those important relationships."

Mahurin also fears that budget cuts will mean less services for students.

Presently, Sears offers a breakfast program supported by both the school and community. It also pays to offer lunches to low-income students after the district lunch program ends in May.

"There are all sorts of untold things that happen," she said.

"When I go to Juneau and talk to the Legislature, I'm always explaining the percentage of free- and reduced-lunch students we have and the percentage of single-parent families we have," said Mahurin, who also serves on the National Education Association board and lobbies for school funding.

"We're not talking about it as a negative, but often families whose resources are limited need more of our school resources. The legislators don't have a picture of what is happening in schools. We're not supposed to be responsible for meeting social needs, but the reality is we have to meet all the needs students have."

Luckily, Mahurin said, students will not lose the three specialists employed by the school to teach music, physical education and library.

"This school recognizes a full well-rounded education," she said. "I cannot imagine a school that teaches kids how to read without a full-time librarian. With the increase of obesity in the country, we need a PE teacher to teach students to be active in the winter. And music is part of an integrated program here. Those are vital."

But, she said, keeping those specialists means cutting into the instructional staff allotment. Due to the decrease in enrollment alone, Sears will lose 1 1/2 teaching positions in the fall.

That means higher teacher-student ratios in elementary classes and the possibility of fewer class offerings at higher grade levels.

"Seventy percent of our students do not go on to college. We need vocational training," Mahurin said. "I also really worry about athletics and other extracurricular activities. I had three children with varied interests go through this school system and they got outstanding educations. They had classes to meet all their needs."

She doesn't know that the same holds true for students today.

"When I was in Juneau in March we hit every legislator, and everyone said they realize that schools need funding," Mahurin said. "They know that it's a train heading for a wreck, but until it hits the wall, nothing is going to happen.

"That's why I'm retiring," she said, with tears in her eyes. "If I can't do it the way I have, I'm not going to do it.

"I'm excited for the future for me, but not for my district."

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