Seward community sounds off in meeting exploring consolidation of local schools

Published: Apr. 11, 2019 at 2:10 PM AKDT
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As school officials within the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District explore the possibility of consolidating educational institutions, Seward community members are sounding off about the available options to catch up with a rapidly dwindling budget.

"We try to use every circumstance to the betterment of our students," said Dr. Christine Ermold of the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District. "If we're going to be forced into it, we want to make the best of it."

KPBSD previously announced the discussion of school consolidation due to "the fiscal uncertainty at the state and borough levels," saying the exploration of such an option is an act of due diligence, and that the borough is being "proactive" in exploring possibilities in the event of significant funding cuts. A shrinking student population is also causing funding issues as districts lose money amid shrinking enrollment numbers.

"What I see happening at Seward El(ementary) is we are declining," said Seward Elementary Principal Andy Haskins. "If you look at the district projections for the next five years, those are pretty close. As a collective, we really have to think about our economy of scale and maximizing our reductions to provide the best for our students with what we are given."

The consolidation of the schools in Seward would eliminate some of the current transportation issues, Ermold said, and would save about $409,000 per year in operating costs.

However, the cost of the newly-House-passed budget goes far beyond dollar signs: For example, in the case of KPBSD schools, reductions are already slated to be made. A few teachers are likely going to be cut, with some of them being moved. Schools could close and district-funded programs ended.

"Our students are getting a little anxious about this as well," said Seward Middle School Principal Jenny Martin. "Knowing beforehand would be a much better situation."

One teacher at the meeting said the kids in her class know what's going on.

"Our students are aware of the fact of the tradeoffs," said Carlin Nichols, a middle school science teacher. "'If it means we get to keep our sports, if it means we get to keep our pool, if it means we get to keep our theater...' They're recognizing these things could benefit them, even if they're hard."

Districts across the state are feeling the squeeze of Gov. Mike Dunleavy's proposed austerity budget. KPBSD's reduction of almost 25% has prompted not only the consideration of consolidating schools but also the elimination of well-liked and attended programs.

"It's emotional, it's tough, but we really need to think about the kids," Haskins said. "The kids are the ones that are really going to suffer."

According to KPBSD officials, making up $22.4 million in order to meet Dunleavy's proposed reductions to state funding would require cutting multiple school district offerings. Among those on the chopping block: all sports programs; all extracurricular activities, including music, yearbook, and others; charter school funding; inservice meals and snacks; and school supplies.

"We need to be realistic about the offerings," said Tim Vlasak, Assessment, Curriculum, Federal Programs and Small Schools Director, "because the number of offerings go with the number of kids in the program."

The district also noted the potential for increased teacher-to-pupil ratios, staff reductions, elimination of the school district mobile application, and eliminating school tech plan purchases for the coming fiscal year.

"We have to make choices based on the resources we have," Ermold said. "But instead of schools versus disaster recovery or schools versus the PFD, re-framing it is an important part of what we have to do."

Some parents also expressed specific concerns about the combining of very young students with much older ones.

"My son is 11, and that's pretty young developmentally," said one parent, "and that worries me.

"He's 11 and would go to school with high school seniors," he said.

Karen Corrigan, the mother of a ninth grader within the district, suggested cuts to other communities instead, at least until the others get closer to Seward in terms of offerings.

"We're used to sacrificing," Corrigan said, noting Seward has 36 fewer extra-curricular offerings compared to one of the other school communities within the KPBSD. "This is a public district. There's no reason there should be such a disparity."

Local, state and federal funding are in large part based on enrollment numbers. Whatever the number of students though, the reality is that school districts across the state are right now working to solve the massive budget gap that may exist within each community.

In Homer, the local high school also reportedly has enough space to house both the middle and high school populations. The consolidation would again simplify transportation issues and save about $450,000 in operating costs plus avoid another $10 million in deferred maintenance, officials said.

The community meeting in Homer will be held April 15 at 6 p.m. in the Homer High School commons.