Members of the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District Board of Education were in agreement Monday that no one wants to increase class sizes in the district.
But whether that goal is one the board can meet remained a topic of hot discussion.
Board members held a work session to discuss certified staffing formulas also known as pupil-teacher ratios, or PTR prior to their general meeting in Homer on Monday. The board is not scheduled to take action on the formulas until its next meeting, Nov. 17.
But while the meeting was well-labeled as "preliminary," it drew no shortage of attention from board members, administrators, teachers and the public.
At issue is the number of teachers and administrators to be hired per the number of students in the district. Last year, the board approved an increase to the PTR, effectively cutting the number of teachers per student and raising class sizes in grades four through 12 across the district. The move was a financial one, saving about $3.3 million in a tight budget.
This year, board members say they have no desire to up the ratio again. But, the district is expecting a $5 million shortfall for the 2004-05 school year, and some believe there is little hope of maintaining the current class sizes.
The administration proposal before the board is, for the most part, a status quo set of ratios. The proposal holds PTR at its current levels the ones elevated by last year's board decision and provides only a handful of minor changes to help deal with a shortage of elementary school specialists (library, music and physical education teachers) and with the difficulties of providing an adequate high school program in small schools serving kindergarten through 12th-grade students.
Board members had a handful of questions and concerns about the proposal. For example, Debbie Holle of Kasilof said she's concerned about the hit small schools are taking.
"A lot of folks out there have been feeling this for a while," she said, referring primarily to Ninilchik School, a K-12 school that has been losing teachers quickly with budget cuts and declining enrollment. "We need to do something different, especially with our high school and elementary schools. We need to provide an equal opportunity for kids."
Gary Whiteley, assistant superintendent of instruction, said he shares the concern, but that's why the district's proposal adds a half-time "content specialist" position to such schools.
Board President Deborah Ger-mano of Homer said she remains concerned about the role of elementary specialists. At present, most elementary schools are allotted a certain number of specialist positions to use as site councils and administrators choose. The new proposal would change that, implementing a shared-specialist program piloted this year at four sites. Elementary schools with less than 200 students would get library, music and physical education specialists on a rotating basis.
For example, a school would have music for one quarter, then library, then physical education. The teachers would be assigned to only one school for a quarter but would travel to as many as four schools throughout the year.
Superintendent Donna Peterson said the program has worked well in the four schools where it was piloted this year, and that it provides a more efficient means of providing such programs to students.
"If students have music once a week, they have it 36 times in a year. If they have it for a quarter, they have it 44 times," she said.
The system also would save money and avoid "windshield time" for teachers traveling between schools during the course of a day.
The formula also would provide a three-hour-per-day library aid position to participating schools to help keep libraries open during the parts of the year when the library specialist isn't at the school.
Board member Margaret Gilman of Kenai said she worried that the plan discounts the amount of work a librarian actually does.
"Who's ordering books?" she asked.
"There's no money for books," Peterson said.
While the board's questions brought up a number of issues that will need further consideration in the coming weeks, the crux of the conversation hinged on what the board is going to do with the proposal.
Traditionally, the board approves staffing formulas in November, and those numbers are an integral part of the development of a preliminary budget for the district. True to form, the board is scheduled to take action on the formulas Nov. 17.
But while the board members said the status quo proposal is a far cry from what they'd like to see a lowering of class sizes board member Nels Anderson of Soldotna said even status quo is a pipe dream.
"If Mrs. (Melody) Douglas (the district's chief financial officer) is right and we're looking at a $5 million loss, then this staffing formula is a joke," he said. "We can't pass it."
"Yes, we can," Germano replied.
"Then we're just burying our heads in the sand," Anderson said.
Anderson said the board needs to be realistic in its financial constraints and come up with a plan for saving that $5 million before approving a staffing ratio the district's budget can't afford.
But Germano pointed out that the board repeatedly has said PTR would be the last resort for budget savings and that making changes now would be unfair to the public.
"I think to be fair to the public, we need to pass a staffing formula prior to the budget," she said. "Everybody understands that cuts have to be made. We owe it to the public to say, 'What are you willing to sacrifice?'"
Anderson, however, said the board needs to have a plan so that the public knows what cuts are even possible.
"I've got two or three ideas, but they're not very palatable," he said. "We need to talk about where the $5 million is going to come from."
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