As the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District makes contingency plans in case Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s proposed cuts to education funding go through unaltered, Homer area residents learned more last week about how those plans might affect students in the community.
The district held an exploratory meeting last Monday at Homer High School to discuss the possibility of consolidating the high school with Homer Middle School. If it happened, the middle school building would be closed and its students and staff moved into the high school campus.
Dunleavy’s proposed budget would mean a $22.4 million reduction to the peninsula’s school district alone. Thus, the district is making plans to be able to deal with the worst case scenario. Local Alaska Senate representative Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, has said it’s unlikely Dunleavy’s budget will go through as-is, especially when it comes to education funding.
Interim Superintendent John O’Brien said consolidation of the two Homer schools is not the most likely option the district is looking at. He explained that, logistically, it makes the most sense to consolidate Soldotna High School and Soldotna Prep, which currently houses freshmen.
“Please know that this is not a done deal,” O’Brien said. “… This is just the very beginning of our conversation with the Homer community about this potential consolidation.”
Consolidating the schools would save the district about $459,000 in operating costs each year, as well as about $10 million in deferred maintenance costs. The deferred maintenance is in reference to the middle school, where several projects to help upkeep the building have been put off, such as upgrades to the lighting, carpeting and the heating system.
O’Brien explained that the money saved annually in operating costs by closing the middle school would equate to the district being able to continue employing 10 teachers.
However, consolidating the two schools is not at the top of the district’s list for saving costs.
“From an educational standpoint, moving Homer Middle School into Homer High School probably isn’t the very best thing for us to do as a district,” O’Brien said.
Homer High School Principal Doug Waclawski and Homer Middle School Principal Kari Dendurent presented logistical information about their two schools as well as results from a survey the district put out to members of the lower Kenai Peninsula. Of the 357 people who answered the survey about consolidating the two schools, 64.8 percent answered that they would not be in favor of that happening, while about 35 percent answered that they would be OK with it.
Waclawski told the crowd that, currently the Homer High campus does not have enough room to fit the students and staff of both schools. However, he said he anticipates that at least four staff positions will be lost over the next year. With that reduction and the change it will make to class sizes, he said Homer High could make it work if they got creative with building space.
“If we had the staff of the middle school now and the high school now, it wouldn’t be physically possible to put all those people in this building. … That’s the reality,” Waclawski said.
For example, Waclawski said the school has 504 lockers, but that not all of them work. He said some students would potentially have to share a locker. Larger rooms could be split into two, and Waclawski said some teachers would potentially be using mobile carts.
There would be no changes to the resources and services available to special education students, Dendurent and Waclawski said. The way schools accommodate those students is mandated by law.
One of the main concerns Dendurent said was brought up in the survey, and one brought up at the meeting, was what will happen if the two age groups were merged onto one campus. Community members at the meeting said they were nervous the older high school students might have a negative impact on middle school students. Waclawski said the campus would be set up to keep the two age groups as separated as possible.
Others brought up the fact that the high school has an open campus policy for upperclassmen during lunch time. They worried that an open campus would not be safe for middle schoolers. KPBSD School Board member Zen Kelly, who represents the Homer area along with member Mike Illg, said that Homer High’s campus is already closed for freshmen — they are not allowed off campus during lunch. He said the same rule would likely be applied to middle school students.
“It’s going to be, again, a community (effort),” Dendurent said of mixing the two age groups. “It’s going to be parents talking to students. It’s going to be us saying, the choices that you’re making in seventh grade or eighth grade … you know, taking photos or (using) social media — all of that stuff is really, really scary, but it’s just making sure that those conversations are being had.”
Dendurent said that, due to differences in social maturity, there “definitely has to be separation.”
Waclawski also said the high school would work to make a welcoming school culture to make the middle school students feel as welcome as much as possible.
The school board is currently working on a tiered plan for making cuts to the district, O’Brien explained. It isn’t finalized, and operates by introducing different cuts at different assumed levels of funding reduction. For example, he explained that school consolidation does not even appear in the first two tiers of the spending reduction plan.
“We’re hoping for the best but preparing for the worst,” Waclawski said.
The school board was scheduled to meet today for a worksession and special meeting to discuss consolidation of various schools further. The next school board meeting is scheduled for May 6, at which point O’Brien said the district and board will have its plan for tiered cuts more finalized.
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