School district gets through tough year

Posted: Wednesday, December 31, 2003

2003 was a nail-biter for the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District. It was a year of close-calls, near-misses and narrow victories. It also was a year of transition.

The year started with members of the Kenai Peninsula Education Association and Kenai Peninsula Education Support Association working without contracts. The district began negotiations with the two employee unions in January 2002, and the employee contracts expired June 30, 2002, with no replacement in sight.

The collective bargaining process went through months of unfair labor practices complaints, deadlocks and threatened strikes, with mediation failing, and the contract set to go to an arbitrator in March.

Prior to arbitration, however, teams met in a last-ditch effort to resolve their differences. After 17 hours of intense negotiations, the teams came to an agreement around 3 a.m. Feb. 28. The contracts were ratified by employees and approved by the school board in April.

The settling of the contracts didn't alleviate all the district's worries, though. The district proceeded through almost half of fiscal year 2003 budget without expenditure figures based on salaries, which were impacted by the contracts, and was forced to complete its fiscal year 2004 budget cycle without revenue figures from the state.

Gov. Frank Murkowski spent much of the year touting the need for budget cuts, and district officials had no way of knowing if education would be among them.

In June, however, Murkowski signed Senate Bill 202, which rolled grant money into the state's foundation formula, increasing per-student funding for schools.

The bill narrowly saved the school district from even more extreme cuts, though it still left the district grappling with some tough choices.

The school board voted to close Nikiski Elementary School at the end of the 2003-04 school year and increased the pupil-teacher ratio, raising class sizes and resulting in more than 40 teacher layoffs.

The board also eliminated the budget for cocurricular transportation and increased sports participation fees in schools.

A study that could have been a saving grace for the district was presented to the Legislature in January 2003, showing that the district is shortchanged in the state's area cost differential, the mechanism that accounts for the different costs of running schools in various parts of the state. That study, however, presented both procedural questions and political tangles and eventually was shelved.

The district also said goodbye to two school board members. Al Poindexter, who served one term on the board, and longtime member Joe Arness, who served more than 10 years, opted not to run for election when the board was revamped in October.

However, the reappropriation of the board the result of an October 2002 vote by Kenai Peninsula citizens added two seats to the board and brought in three new faces Marty Anderson of Sterling, Sunni Hilts of Seldovia and Debbie Holle of Kasilof as well as the return of former board member Sandy Wassilie of Seward.

The district had plenty of other positive moments in 2003.

It introduced Project GRAD (motto: Graduation Really Achieves Dreams) in Nanwalek, Nikolaevsk, Ninilchik, Port Graham, Razdolna, Tyonek and Voznesenka schools. The Houston-based school reform program teams with a local nonprofit board to provide curriculum, teacher training and student scholarships in an effort to promote high school graduation and post-secondary education to students in lower-achieving schools.

Three nationally recognized personalities came to the peninsula to speak about education and provide inspiration for area families in students. Native American Olympian Billy Mills spoke in August; author and motivational speaker H. Stephen Glenn offered a handful of presentations in September; and Alaska-raised astronaut Bill Oefelein visited in July and December.

The district's employees also proved their merit, gaining a wide range of state and national recognition this year. Kalifornsky Beach Elementary School principal Sylvia Reynolds was named to the Alaska State Board of Education; Melody Douglas, the district's chief financial officer, was elected vice president of the Association of School Business Officials International; and Skyview High School principal John Pothast was named Region III Principal of the Year in Alaska and elected as president-elect for the Alaska Association of Secondary School Principals.

Seven Kenai Peninsula teachers were named BP Teachers of Excellence in May, including Marc Swanson of Seward Elementary School, Caroline Venuti of West Homer Elementary School, Hal Neace and Dan Calhoun of Homer Middle School, Jeanna Carver of Soldotna High School, Virginia Glenn of Nanwalek School, and John Wensley of Mountain View Elementary School. Wensley also was named Teacher of the Year.

Kevin Harding, a teacher at Kenai Alternative School, earned a place in the Fulbright Memorial Fund Teacher Program and traveled to Japan in November for an educational exchange.

And Allan Miller, a sixth-grade teacher at Sterling Elementary School, was named a finalist for a position as an Educator-Astronaut with NASA. He will find out if he made the cut early in January.

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