Board targets money problems

Posted: Friday, June 08, 2001

Kenai Peninsula public schools are doing well, but real problems need to be addressed.

Tuesday, the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District Board of Education sat down in the Skyview High School library to discuss what it can realistically do to improve education here. The goal-setting session is an annual, all-day affair that helps the board and central office administration prioritize projects for the coming school year.

The meeting was unusually brief this year. Participants attributed the brevity to good organization and a common focus.

But another factor was the lack of resources. Board members said they put valuable projects on the back burner because the district lacks the money, time and staff to work on them.

"It's pretty bare bones stuff," said Al Poindexter from Anchor Point, who was elected last fall.

"If we put more on the plate, that's more that doesn't get done. ... It got to the point where no one had anything to say."

Poindexter, a retired teacher, said being on the school board has radically changed his view of the district.

He has advocated beefing up vocational learning opportunities for peninsula students. But now he is pessimistic about getting quick results in the current financial climate.

"It's pretty tough to talk about things beyond the basics. ... I kind of doubt that a whole lot is going to get done," he said. "It is a totally different perspective. It all ties to the almighty dollar."

The board, in its preliminary results, drafted three goals:

1- Strengthening relations between the board and the district staff

The squeeze on district employees, who are asked to do more every year with relatively fewer resources, was the top concern.

The issue may come to a head this year, because the contract between the district and the teachers' union, the Kenai Peninsula Education Association, expires in 2002 and will come up for negotiation during the coming school year.

Hans Bilben, who was elected KPEA president in May, stopped by the meeting and made a brief presentation about his organization's views. Poindexter said Bilben was blunt about the teachers wanting more than they are getting.

"That pretty much stopped our discussion," Poindexter said.

Superintendent Donna Peterson agreed that teacher pay is a problem. The district can no longer successfully compete with others to attract quality new hires and is even having trouble keeping those it already has.

"We are losing good people," she said. "We can't pay good people good enough."

Another board member, Dr. Nels Anderson, agreed that the district is in a dilemma about salaries.

"Negotiations are kind of hanging over our heads," he said. "We don't have control of the purse strings any more than the teachers have.

"We end up being natural antagonists of the people whose salaries we set. We don't want that."

The board also is concerned about the workload for employees at all levels. Members said Peterson made it clear that her people, including central office administrators, are maxed out.

"The administration is just worked to the bone," Poindexter said.

To work on the problem of adequately compensating and supporting employees, the board plans to work more with individual schools and to stress communication.

2- Review, refocus and retrain in areas of existing school district operations

Peterson told the board that district employees, especially the many new to the district in recent years, need a breather to catch up with the changes and demands being thrown at them.

"It was pretty clear that everyone's plate is very full. ... We have got to shore up standard, routine functions," she said.

The administration asked for a review and update of diverse school functions.

To assist, the board intends to help the staff get training and time to work on meeting certified diploma standards, cocurricular activities issues, effective technology use, school safety procedures update and modernization of instruction.

3- Provide leadership for stable education funding

This goal addresses the funding needs the board members identify as the root of many problems.

Laws restrict the amount of money given to schools, and over the past decade, peninsula schools have struggled to cover inflating operating costs.

This year's funding increase from the Legislature left educators with mixed feelings.

"We are all pleased that the Legislature gave us something, but we all know it wasn't enough," Peterson said.

Sandra Wassilie of Seward, the other freshman board member, said the money problem is central.

"We run a big operation, and it takes money. There is just no way around it," she said.

Anderson added, "None of us are pleased with the funding. But as far as what we are doing with our funding, I think we are doing well and being clever."

The board plans to work with statewide organizations and the Legislature to pursue rules changes to guard school funding against inflationary erosion, declines and fluctuations.

Other tasks the board chose to pursue during the 2001-02 school year include a survey on student representatives from the Association of Alaska School Boards; finding a future space for the central office outside the Borough Building; annual updates of the long-range plan; doing a cost-benefit analysis on the possibility of getting a toll-free number for the district; and a new handbook for counselors.

Wassilie said she was impressed by the goal-setting session.

"I'm glad that we have it, because I think sometimes entities don't build in that review and planning process," she said.

She acknowledged that the list, although it is short, will be challenging. The essence, she stressed, is not maintaining the status quo, but moving forward.

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