To district, or not to district, the school board -- that has become a thorny question for the Kenai Peninsula Borough. The question could end up on the 2002 ballot.
Monday, the school board took a position opposing proposals to change the way it is elected from the current at-large membership to geographic districts. The board recommendation followed considerable soul-searching on the subtle issue.
"It is our feeling that the potential pitfalls and damage outweigh the potential benefits, and so recommend that districting not be forwarded to the assembly," wrote Joe Arness, a school board member, in a memo to the borough's reapportionment committee.
The issue grew out of the federally mandated redistricting of the borough assembly following the 2000 census. After the October municipal election, some citizens, particularly from outlying parts of the borough, such as Seward, expressed concerns that the peninsula's population center in the Kenai-Soldotna area dominates the school board to the detriment of more rural communities.
Following an afternoon work session and extensive revisions, the school board adopted the text Arness had written. The document reflected the board's resolve to reach a consensus on one of the few issues where member's opinions diverged.
"We've had some rather interesting debates on this," said member Debra Mullins.
She and others said they had spent considerable time and effort talking to people and researching the issue, including finding out the experiences of school boards and other elected bodies elsewhere.
"The research has shown (districting) causes much more controversy and rancor among those boards," she said.
Mullins drew a distinction between legislative bodies, such as the borough assembly, and the school board, which sets policies. Geographic representation is appropriate for the assembly, but the school board exists to serve all the borough's students equally, she said.
Deborah Germano, a school board member who lives in Homer, said, "This issue really is about perceptions."
In earlier discussions, she had expressed concerns about rural residents' sense of disenfranchisement. But Monday she sided with the other board members in recommending that the committee advise the assembly not put the question to the voters as its first-choice option.
"As a second choice, we would propose seven single-member districts," she said.
If the assembly and the voters favor districting despite the school board's recommendation, the next issue would be deciding between a seven-member or nine-member body. School board members were leery of having the board identified too directly with the borough assembly if its members reflected the same districts.
The exception was Al Poindexter, from Anchor Point.
"I think nine would be a better way to solve that perception," he said, "but seven seems to work well, and I will support the motion."
The newest board member, Margaret Gilman, thought at first that districting would be appropriate. But going from school to school and discussing the topic with others changed her mind. Now she believes the appropriate advocates for individual schools are their principals, she said.
"I don't think (districting) is enough of an issue to spend more money and increase the size of the board," she said.
The school board will submit its recommendation to the borough reapportionment committee, which will meet at 2 p.m. Thursday in the Borough Building in Soldotna.
In other school board business:
The district will recommend seven priority items to Congress and the Legislature. The board unanimously adopted the list, the purpose of which is to assure a quality educational experience for all Alaska children. The recommendations are:
Significantly increase the per student allocation of state funding. The board, citing a task force study from the state, noted that real education dollars have fallen behind inflation in Alaska.
Delay implementing the school designations for one year. State law requires that, beginning in August, schools be classified as distinguished, successful, deficient or in crisis. The classifications will be based on standardized test scores. The board noted that many of the tests are too new to have track records.
Continue work on equitable education funding. The district recommends that mandates receive full funding, that the cost differentials among schools become more accurate and that the way alternative, charter and correspondence school enrollments are counted be changed.
Continue assigning federal Title I grant funds, used to aid low-income students, to schools the way they have been distributed. The district statement cited potential changes in the rules that would target the funding to individual students as counterproductive. It advocated for flexibility.
Continue grants to reduce class sizes for primary pupils. The federal program has allowed the district to hire 11 additional teachers and strengthen the primary program and reading instruction, according to the recommendation listed. Proposed changes could jeopardize the funding and force the district to lay off teachers, it said.
Extend East End Road on the south peninsula from Homer to the Russian village schools at the head of Kachemak Bay. The board pointed to facility problems in the village of Voznesenka, where the leased school building is 400 percent over capacity. The recommendation says that a passable road in the area would allow the busing of village children to better access resources.
Make attendance compulsory. The board advocates that state laws expand the time students must attend school from the current ages of 7 to 16 to ages 6 to 17. It also asks the state to work for better enforcement.
The next school board meeting will be at 7:30 p.m. Jan. 7 in the Borough Building.
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