(This article has been updated).
The Kenai Peninsula Borough School District hosted a meeting to offer more information about potentially consolidating Soldotna High School and Soldotna Prep School. Community members, students, staffs and parents trickled into the meeting, which was in the Soldotna High auditorium, Thursday evening.
The school principals, Tony Graham of Soldotna High and Curt Schmidt of Soldotna Prep, and John O’Brien, the assistant superintendent of instruction for the district, gave a presentation on the fiscal situation the district is currently dealing with, and reasons for potential consolidation.
“We’re in a situation we don’t want to be in,” O’Brien said at the meeting. “We’re really here, for the most part, because of the governor’s proposed budget. A $22.4 million cut from our budget is an awful lot. There’s no way the district can do that simply by raising (the peer-to-teacher ratio) and increasing class sizes and laying off teachers and support staff.”
The district conducted an online survey to gauge affected residents’ feelings on a potential consolidation. At the time of last night’s meeting, 456 people had participated, with over 80 percent of residents in favor of consolidation.
Closing down Soldotna Prep, which houses ninth graders, and moving those students to Soldotna High School, would have a cost savings of $628,000, the district presented.
All school buildings are maintained and owned by the borough. After a building is vacated, it is turned back over the borough, where they have the ability to do what they want with it.
“They could put it up for auction, a private business could approach it, or the borough could just keep it if they wanted to,” O’Brien said.
The district is also exploring the options of consolidation in the communities of Homer and Seward.
“There’s no way the district would ever choose to be having these kinds of conversations in more than one community at a time,” O’Brien said. “We would be insane to do that in a normal situation. These are not normal situations.”
In order to consolidate the two schools, the Soldotna Prep building would need to be completely vacated. Currently, Soldotna Prep is also home to River City Academy, the district’s professional development room and a number of special education staff. The district said three portables from Soldotna Prep would also be moved to Soldotna High School, in order to help alleviate a potential consolidation.
O’Brien said the district is working hard to find a new site for River City Academy. He said the district has discussed the possibility of moving the academy on to the Kenai Peninsula College campus.
“We were floating the idea that ‘wouldn’t it be great to put RCA on the KPC campus?’” O’Brien said. “Then we could talk about starting a middle college.”
However, he said concerns over the KPC campus were raised since River City Academy includes seventh and eighth graders.
“The best option we have is Skyview,” O’Brien said. “That’s going to be inconvenient and is going to impact Skyview.”
Many parents and staff had concerns about an increase in peer-to-teacher ratio. Soldotna High principal Graham said “all arrows are indicating an increase in “ptr.” He said the class sizes now are about one to 25 but could be raised as high as one to 32.
O’Brien and Graham said that while combining the two schools would help save course offerings, some staff will be duplicative, requiring cuts.
Other community members were concerned about whether or not Soldotna High School was big enough to take on the students from Soldotna Prep. The projected enrollment would come to around 738 students.
“There will be enough room,” Graham said. “I know the first question that came was about lockers. We physically walked around and counted lockers and we have north of 750.”
O’Brien said he’s concerned about enrollment. While the district is fairly accurate with their projection numbers, he said, the number of students projected to be in the district next year could be less than previously thought.
“I’m little concerned with what our enrollment is going to be in this district and districts across the state given this fiscal situation,” O’Brien said. “We are hearing that families are moving. We know that we have staff members that have already decided to move out of state who have two, three, four kids. When we have staff that decides to go teach in another state and they’re taking their kids with them, just by that virtue we are losing enrollment.”
O’Brien said more and more parents are choosing to home-school their students.
“I think we’re going to see here is that (enrollment projection) won’t be quite that high,” O’Brien said. “There is adequate room here in the building. The portables being brought over will be a big help as well.”
The district has made no decisions yet, but the consolidation could come as soon as this upcoming school year.