Education bill to be amended following testimony

A section of Senate Bill 96 calling for the consolidation of schools at less than 80 percent capacity that are located within 25-miles of each other will be “drastically changed” in the next draft according to the Senate Education Committee’s chair, Sen. Shelley Hughes (R-Palmer).

In a letter to the Hughes posted on the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District’s webpage this week, Assistant Superintendent Dave Jones expressed his concern with the proposed changes to the school size factor adjustment, found in sections 10 and 11 of SB 96.

“Any adjustments to foundation funding need to be based on empirical data,” the letter states. “… SB 96 reduces funding to buildings below 80 percent capacity and within 25 miles of each other. Both the 80 percent and 25 mile factors have been arbitrarily determined, and as such, do not provide a proper basis for determining education funding.”

Throughout the week, the committee heard testimony on the bill, by invitation only, with many speakers echoing the sentiments of Jones.

“There was a lot of public comment on Tuesday about sections 10 and 11 with the bill,” Hughes said during Friday’s senate hearing. “We didn’t want unintended consequences … The goal was to free up facilities, facilities that made sense. We were struggling, as everyone knows, on getting it right.”

She said the committee has decided to ask the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development to do a full analysis of schools that would fall under the criteria for consolidation.

“We’re going to concentrate on 70 percent capacity level, rather than 80 percent, and we are asking them to report back to us with their recommendation in January and then we will work from there,” Hughes said.

According to information released by the district, at least 22 schools throughout the peninsula would receive reduced funding if the state effort to consolidate schools was passed as currently written.

“The way that funding is determined would be changed in the Foundation Formula on the way the bill is currently written… If schools were not consolidated, funding for schools would decrease,” said Pegge Erkeneff, the district spokesperson.

The district also questioned logistical aspects of the bill, such as who would fund the implementation costs of consolidation on the local level.

“There’s also no current language in the bill that differentiates between an elementary and a high school and how those two would merge… If you consolidate between those two schools, the facilities are different,” Erkeneff said, pointing to the difference in bathroom and countertop heights at the elementary and high school levels.

“There are so many different factors here,” Hughes said in an interview. “We realized that if you have one less facility, you can save money. We agreed with the concept, we were just having trouble with the language … It went too far and our language just wasn’t tight enough.”

The bill, which is sponsored by the Senate Education Committee, was introduced on March 20 and is being referred to as the “Education Transformation Bill.” It seeks to help districts provide a high quality education by “giving them the tools to do more with less,” according to committee documents.

“KPBSD administration appreciates the thoughtful response of the senate to remove that portion until it can be delved into with greater depths,” Erkeneff said. “We’re still looking at other portions of the bill.”

The bill also includes provisions to increase access to education through a virtual education consortium for both students and teachers. The consortium would create and maintain a database of virtual education courses for students in grades six to 12. It would also include professional development courses for teachers of all grade levels.

Alaska’s teachers would be required to receive professional development training specific to virtual education, offered at no additional cost to the districts, according to the bill.

“In the section about virtual education… we do have concerns because the Department of Education is also working on their vision for the future of education in Alaska,” Erkeneff said. “We want everyone to be working together for the future of education and our children.”

The bill will also offer incentives to districts that pool their resources and streamline administrative costs.

“One of the things we’ve learned in our exploratory meetings is that overall spending does not correlate with academic achievement, however, spending on the classrooms does,” Hughes said. “So the other part of the bill is really to urge the districts to look at becoming more efficient, to think outside the box and cooperate with other districts, non-profits, other government agencies or businesses.”

The committee will meet again on Monday for an additional hearing on SB 96, which begins at 8 a.m. Hughes said she hopes to have the new committee substitute pertaining to sections 10 and 11 in hand.

“We’re not doing doing the best we can, but it’s going to take some change to do it different,” she said. “We cannot throw up our hands, we have to do something and we have to take active steps here. That’s what the bill is about.”

Reach Kat Sorensen at kat.sorensen@peninsulaclarion.com.

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