Concerns raised over staff cuts, funding

Posted: Wednesday, December 05, 2001

New enrollment projections predict seven fewer students at Nikiski Middle-Senior High School next year, meaning the school will lose half a teaching position, according to recently released staffing formulas.

In response to the anticipated cut, a few Nikiski teachers have decided to raise the community's awareness of what that loss could mean to the school as well as what they see as a troubling trend.

"We don't think the public really knows what's going on," said Nikiski science teacher Kent Sanders.

According to recently released Kenai Peninsula Borough School District staffing formulas, Nikiski is projected to have 481 students next year. That is only seven students fewer than current enrollment. Enrollment determines how many staff members the school will have each year. The number of certified, in-class teachers could shrink from 23 to 22.5, according to the formula which provides for one teacher for every 21.5 students.

Fourteen others schools in the district also are facing staff losses.

Nikiski principal Robin Williams said she will have to cut elective areas to compensate for lean required areas.

"This may mean that a tenured elective teacher will be teaching in an academic area that they are not certified in," Williams said. "I'm faced with choosing an elective area that will have to be cut. I'm not going to win a popularity contest with any parent or student because they are invested in those electives. But I have to do that to protect the integrity of my academic program."

Teacher contracts are due to expire at the end of the 2001-2002 school year. Negotiations for new contracts will start at the beginning of the new year, and both the district and Kenai Peninsula Education Association are gearing up for the talks.

After learning the school's staff count would be reduced next year, four Nikiski teachers decided to make a statement. English teacher Joe Rizzo said his group's efforts were not intended to create any problems that might detract from negotiations.

"We are not in opposition to KPEA," Rizzo said . "This is really a grass-roots effort."

The grass-roots effort grew around Sanders, Rizzo, science teacher Phil Morin and language arts teacher Carla Jenness.

"Since we've been cut every year, we've kind of put a happy face on it," Jenness said. "We've done a good job, but we aren't going to be able to continue to."

The teacher decline began at Nikiski after the 1993-94 school year, when the school recorded its highest certified staff population with 31 teachers, four special education teachers and two counselors. Teaching positions decreased by one the next year followed by an increase of a half of a position during the 95-96 school year.

The number of counselors was cut in half at the beginning of the 96-97 school year and the special education teaching positions slipped to three in fall 2000. Teacher head-count hovered between 27 and 28 from fall 1996 to spring 2000, but there was a dramatic change in the 2000-2001 school year.

"We lost four teachers in 2000," Morin said. "But we don't want to take extreme job action. So we thought, 'what can we do in a proactive, positive way?'"

On Nov. 21, the group led an informational rally at the corner of the Kenai Spur Highway and Arness Dock Road, next to Steve's Chevron and the Nikiski fire station.

Teachers gathered that afternoon with signs saying things like "Help us help our children," "Dogfight with Juneau," "I've been bitten in the class," or "Teaching physics using marbles, string and bubble gum."

"We had almost 100 percent of our faculty show up," Jenness said. "Our staff is really involved in trying to get the word out."

Morin said the goal was to inform the public of the trend of decreasing teachers and to get the attention of those who might be able to help.

Their plan worked to some degree. The group was able to attract the attention of at least one state legislator. Rep. Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, showed up to the rally and talked to organizers and answered questions.

"My plan is to try to increase school funding," Chenault said. "I'd like to see schools have more money, but I am just one guy out of 60."

Chenault said some legislators will be reluctant to push for more school funding without knowing the state will get its money's worth.

"There will be a medium where they'll want schools to be held accountable for monies spent," Chenault said. "This is where the testing will be an issue."

Sanders said accountability should be the issue if schools have what they need to function effectively.

"They're always going to get their money's worth," Sanders said. "Public education is always going to be successful when we have a combination of parents helping at home and funding."

Williams said her teachers are making the best of their situation, although she said she felt there could have been room to avoid any loss of staff.

"I've heard people saying, 'do less with less,' but the reality is that my staff are consummate professionals and they have a hard time cutting back in any arena," she said. "I believe that it would have been more prudent for the (district) to allow for three more kids."

Morin said the group will continue to hold rallies periodically until it is certain its message has hit home.

"Hopefully, we will inspire our community to weigh in for increased funding."

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