School board OKs staff formulas

Last-ditch attempt to lower PTR fails

Posted: Wednesday, November 19, 2003

The Kenai Peninsula Borough School District Board of Education decided Monday to approve status quo staffing formulas for the 2004-05 school year.

But it wasn't an easy decision.

The greatest discussion in the matter came with the decision about certified staffing formulas, also known as pupil-teacher ratios, or PTR. The certified staffing formulas determine how many teachers are hired at a school on a per-pupil basis, as well as how many school administrators, counselors, librarians and specialists each school gets.

Last year, the board voted to increase PTR by three students per teacher in all classes except kindergarten through third grade. Board members and the community at large have had problems with this decision because, though it saved the district money, it increased class sizes and cut the number of programs schools could offer.

The board received petitions and heard public comments from several community members asking that PTR be lowered this year. But while board members said they would like to lower the ratios, most said money issues preclude the option. However, they have maintained for months that the ratios cannot be increased again this year.

The formula before the board Monday was what district administration called a "status quo" proposal. For the most part, numbers remained steady with last year's increase. However, there are a few changes in the ratios.

The district has reclassified schools to provide more accurate grouping categories. For example, last year's ratios had a kindergarten through eighth-grade category, though few schools fell into that classification. Instead, schools now are broken into four categories: high schools and middle schools with 100 or more students; kindergarten through sixth-grade elementary schools with more than 200 students; small schools with less than 200 students; and programs, which includes alternative schools and detention center schools in the district.

For the most part, the new classifications have little effect on the individual schools' staffing formulas. However, the district has made a few changes.

Among the changes are the implementation of a rotating elementary specialist position for smaller elementary schools. At present, most elementary schools are staffed with at least 1.5 specialist positions -- music and physical education teachers and librarians -- based on the number of students. Schools and their corresponding site councils generally are free to use those positions as needed.

However, the 2004-05 formulas change the staffing situation for elementary schools with less than 200 students. Rather than having full-time specialists at each school, the district will implement rotating specialist positions. The participating schools would have a physical education teacher for half the year, a music teacher for one quarter and a librarian for one quarter. The district also added a part-time library aide position to the support staffing formulas to compensate for the times in a year when those elementary schools do not have an on-site librarian.

Superintendent Donna Peterson told the board earlier this month that the rotating staff system ensures that all students in participating schools get all three "specialty" classes. It also provides more face time with the specialists.

"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 at the last board meeting Nov. 3.

Some board members, however, worry the new system will deprive small elementary schools of flexibility.

Affected schools will include Chapman Elementary, McNeil Canyon Elementary, Ninilchik Elementary, Sterling Elementary, Tustumena Elementary and Vozne-senka School.

Another change to the certified staffing formula is the addition of high school specialists at small schools with students in grades nine through 12. The extra position -- a half-time position for schools with 25 to 50 high schoolers and a full-time position with schools with 50 or more high schoolers -- will help small schools provide somewhat more comprehensive high school programs, Peterson said. The addition will provide half-time content specialists at Nikolaevsk, Susan B. English and Voznesenka schools and a full-time specialist at Ninilchik.

Though board members ac-knowledged the district's efforts to improve teaching content, many still said they would like to see PTR return to the rate it was at last year.

That's why board member Margaret Gilman of Kenai made a last-minute amendment to the staffing formulas, proposing a reduction of two students per teacher.

"We're already in the hole," Gilman said. "In my mind, this is the first and foremost section of the budget. If hiring teachers isn't our first priority, I can't think of what is."

Board member Debbie Holle of Kasilof agreed.

"Well, gosh, where there is a will, there is a way," Holle said. "I believe this is what the families of the Kenai Peninsula want us to do."

Other board members said they also would like to vote for the PTR reduction, but said it would be irresponsible, as the district doesn't have the estimated $2.8 million such a move would cost.

"I would love to vote for this amendment, but we have a fiduciary responsibility," said board member Sammy Crawford of the Kalifornsky district. "I don't see how we can responsibly do anything but try to maintain the status quo."

Board member Debra Mullins of Nikiski echoed the sentiment.

"This is a difficult place to be in," she said. "It was a hard decision last year. But the thought of having to make a $5 million cut, and adding $2.8 million to that -- that's almost $8 million. I don't have a crystal ball ... . I don't know what the Legislature will do. I don't know what the governor will do. I would like to do this, but it wouldn't be productive to put ourselves in a place we can't get out of."

Board member Sunni Hilts of Seldovia said the amendment would be a dream, but one not based in reality.

"I also believe we should reduce PTR, but I couldn't stop there ... . There are a lot of things I would like to see," she said. "(But) to vote for this amendment would be like taking your kids shopping with a maxed out credit card. It's a promise we can't keep. It is absolutely right to speak for lower PTR, but we just can't do it."

Patrick Tilbury of Ninilchik, the student representative on the board, also said he couldn't recommend approving the amendment.

"This effects me. I'm in the classroom, and this would have a direct effect on my education," he said. "But ... just logically, it doesn't make sense."

The amendment to lower PTR failed 7-2, with Gilman and Holle voting in favor. The proposed staffing formulas passed 7-2, with Holle and Dr. Nels Anderson dissenting.

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