The news that student enrollment in the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District is continuing to decline came as no surprise to anyone at Monday's school board meeting.
But board members and administrators were in for one little surprise.
Though the total number of students in the district is down from last year, as of an official Oct. 1 count, enrollment is above projections for the 2003-04 school year.
And that's good news, since state funding for the district comes at a per-pupil rate.
Melody Douglas, the district's chief financial officer, said she still is expecting a shortfall when it comes time to plan for the 2004-05 budget, due to increased employee salaries, rising health care costs and rapidly escalating employer contribution rates for the Public Em-ployees' Retirement System (PERS) and Teachers' Retirement System (TRS).
Still, the above-projection enrollment is a ray of hope for the district. It means the district won't be in the last-minute crunch it faced last year when enrollment came in below projections, and it may give the district a little wriggle room with the unexpected expense increases, such as PERS and TRS, that it faces this budget cycle.
As of Oct. 1, the district had 9,517 students enrolled, versus the 9,456 it was expecting, Douglas told school board members in a work session Monday afternoon.
Most of the additional students are in Connections, the district's home-school program. According to Douglas' Oct. 1 figures, the program was expecting 392 students and instead got 506.
Connections principal Erling Hofseth said Wednesday that the number now is up to about 540. And, he added, nearly 100 of the 150 additional students joined the program from outside the district.
"What that means is that they came to us from some other program, either private schools or statewide correspondence schools," Hofseth said. "Some of the students were not enrolled in any programs."
The Connections program, which is in its fifth year, was designed not only to provide families with alternative education options, but also to combat a late-1990s trend of students leaving the district for home-school programs.
In Alaska, parents are allowed to home-school their children without registering with the state. While some community members appreciate the freedom this allows, others remain concerned about the lack of accountability for these students' education.
In addition, Alaska families also are free to choose from a number of state and school district-supported home-school programs.
Among those programs are the state's Alyeska Correspondence School and the Galena School District's Interior Distance Educa-tion of Alaska home-school program, which still serves some students on the peninsula.
While those programs also offer support for home-schooling families, Hofseth said he believes the Connections program can do more. Parents still have the freedom of choosing their children's educational programs, but also can opt to participate in some district activities, he explained.
"We're now providing all the options the statewide programs offer, plus the tie to the district allows students to take classes in the district, have IEP (individual education plan) services and participate in sports and activities," Hofseth said. "They still have the freedom and flexibility of home school, but yet have all the district options as well. Statewide programs can't provide that."
Hofseth said he believes the increase in students this year can be attributed to a growing community awareness of the Connections program.
"The word is just now getting out, now that we have a program that I believe people are becoming aware of and that really is an excellent program," he said. "We're not just good anymore, we're excellent."
Hofseth said the Connections program has provided the same services ever since its inception five years ago. But, he said, program coordinators have been working to streamline services and provide packages that are more "user-friendly."
"We try to, with our parents, provide a real plethora of educational options, and not just educational options but quality options," he said. "We are a very, very viable educational option, and we are really, really pleased that we are now providing a program that is the quality, as well as the options and flexibility to attract the people who have chosen other things in the past.
"It's just wonderful for the district."
Administrators and board members agreed.
"It's one small step," said board member Sandy Wassilie of Seward.
"It's a really big step," said Assistant Superintendent of Instruction Gary Whiteley.
"We're really pleased to see this," Douglas said.
Despite the pleasant surprise, however, Douglas said the district will continue to plan conservatively in the coming years, as enrollment still is dropping.
She presented a package of six-year enrollment projections for the board's review, which figure a 2 percent decrease in students across the board.
"These enrollment projections are a revenue issue and a staffing issue," Douglas told board members. "We have a real problem if we miss enrollment, because we do not have the reserves on hand."
The board and administration will review the figures throughout the next two weeks, and the board will take action on the projections at its next meeting Nov. 2.
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