'We are this close'

District sees hope for funding solution

Posted: Wednesday, August 29, 2007

At last, the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District's funding will come into parity with that of others around the state.

That's the belief of District Superintendent Donna Peterson, she told an audience of Soldotna business leaders Tuesday.

"We are this close to a solution," she said, holding up her thumb and index finger in close proximity.

"We're not going to get back the $10 million a year we've lost the past 10 years," she said, but we're looking forward.

Giving members of the Soldotna Chamber of Commerce a presentation titled, "Transforming the District," Peterson referred to news that the Alaska Joint Legislative Education Task Force is reporting "significant progress toward equitable funding across the state."

The Kenai Peninsula district for years has insisted that its area cost differential rate of 1.004, compared to the Anchorage base rate of 1.0, is unfair, mainly due to the large number of small, rural schools included in the Kenai district.

Peterson said, of the 44 schools serving in 21 communities in the borough, 11 have fewer than 100 students and six have between 100 and 200.

"Small schools are the least economic to run," Peterson said, explaining that many of the fixed costs such as heating and lighting are same for a building regardless of how many students are in the building.

Despite the funding disparity, Peterson said the Kenai Peninsula Borough district "is the highest performing district of our size in the state," and she said she believes it is the highest performing district of its size in the entire country.

"Now, if we're about to be adequately funded, we're all about student achievement," she said.

What the district is now seeking from its student body is "thinkers," she said.

"It's not good enough to be able to read and write and do math," Peterson said. "They need to be able to think on their feet."

In describing the challenge of the widely diverse district, she said, whenever a topic comes up in conversation, she is able to respond, "Oh, we do that."

From the district's home-school Connections program, to its educational offerings to young people at the Kenai Peninsula Youth Facility to convicted murderers and other felons housed at Spring Creek prison outside Seward, "We do it all," she said.

"We have a 50-bed school in Spring Creek. We take students with no credits murderers, felons and take them to graduation in 18 months," Peterson said.

"Of course we have them 20 hours a day, we have no attendance problems and there's no problem with discipline," she said, drawing a chuckle from the audience.

At other schools, in addition to concerns for protecting students from child abuse and from intruders, the district must worry about keeping kids safe while riding hundreds of school buses every day, and she must worry about the snow load on the roofs of all 44 schools.

Of the many challenges the district faces, Peterson said having 75 percent of the people living on the peninsula not having children in school makes it difficult to seek needed funding.

During a question and answer period following her formal presentation, Peterson was asked to describe the school district's demographic.

Taking information from the real estate industry, she said, "Five years ago, eight of 10 house bought in Kenai were bought by people with children in school.

"Now, eight of 10 house purchases are seasonal homes or are purchased by older people with no children in school."

Peterson took time to thank the city of Soldotna for providing school resource officers, especially police officer Tony Garcia, whose full-time job is being a presence in schools within the Soldotna city limits to enable students to form lasting friendships with authority.

"Officer Garcia is remarkable," she said.

"Public education, I believe, is the absolute future of our democratic society," Peterson said. "Only with a world class education system will we maintain a world class quality of life."

Phil Hermanek can be reached at phillip.hermanek@peninsulaclarion.com.

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