School district stands behind small schools

  • By Kelly Sullivan
  • Wednesday, January 13, 2016 11:04pm
  • News

The Kenai Peninsula Borough School District and Board of Education are standing behind small schools and the communities that hinge on their doors staying open.

The Board of Education adopted a resolution, along with 30 of the state’s 53 other school districts, the Alaska Superintendents Association and the Alaska Association of School Boards, supporting the request that the Alaska Legislature keep the minimum number of students needed for school funding at 10. The document comes after months of talk that bills may be introduced during the 2016 Legislative session that may raise the floor to as high as 25 students, which would have major impacts on roughly 60 schools statewide, and as many as five in the school district.

“Schools would close, and families would need to make decisions about where their children would receive their education,” said school district spokesperson Pegge Erkeneff. “Attendance area boundaries could potentially shift, along with decisions about providing transportation. If the enrollment minimum changes, less funding is guaranteed — the state won’t fund for anything less.”

Board member Penny Vadla said even the large school districts that don’t have any small schools are showing they are in favor of maintaining the current minimum.

“The quality and quantity is the important issue, that every student in this state get educated, and I think we’ve get a lot of support to maintain that, and I hope we get it from the community as well,” Vadla said.

Erkeneff said it is “extremely likely” that schools in the school district would be at risk for closing if the minimum was raised.

Every year the school district takes part in the 20-Day OASIS Count, or On-Line Alaska School Information System, along with all of Alaska’s public school districts. The count records the average daily membership at each school and is used to determine the amount of funding that will be received from the state and to project next year’s enrollment numbers.

The 2015-2016 state-approved average daily membership numbers shows discrepancies from the projected enrollment for most of the school district’s 44 schools. However, those discrepancies can mean much more for schools with a smaller student body.

“Schools have fluctuating populations and when the enrollment number is low, a few students either way means a lot more than when the population is larger,” Erkeneff said.

The daily membership for Moose Pass Elementary is 15 students this year, but was projected at 10, while Hope Elementary-High School is hovering at 14, but was projected to have 22. Cooper Landing School is at 13, but was projected to have 24 students. Port Graham would barely make the higher minimum cutoff with exactly 25 students this year, although it was projected to have 30 enrolled, and Marathon School fell to 7, even below the current minimum.

“Marathon School will remain open this year because the enrollment does fluctuate — at times significantly — throughout the year based upon the population of students who attend at this site,” Erkeneff said.

Cooper Landing has previously dropped below 10 students in the 2008 and 2010 fiscal years, but has not shut down, she said.

Superintendent Sean Dusek said he has heard feedback from other school districts about the potential change. In particular, he said, Alaska Native students may feel it the most. He said some of the most vocal opposition has come from Lake and Peninsula School District and Kuspuk School District.

“Schools are the hub of most communities, especially smaller, rural ones,” Dusek said. “…If the minimum number of students required for school funding is raised, it could dismantle villages and may have a disproportionate impact on rural villages and (Alaska) Natives.”

Dusek said the alternatives to brick-and-mortar schools are less than ideal.

“A total reliance on a correspondence-type education is not for all students and students receive great benefits through direct, face-to-face instruction from an expert teacher,” Dusek said. “… Our district believes in blended learning (incorporating various methods of instruction) opportunities for a high quality education to prepare students for their future.”

Dusek, along with many of the state’s administrators, echoes the board-approved resolution’s main argument — that it is the right of every student no matter where they are located to receive an education.

Board member Tim Navarre said he is pleased with how the school district’s legislative committee drafted the resolution that will be sent to state legislators.

“The school district is willing to work with the governor, the Legislature and other school districts to find a solution to small school funding, as well as continuing to support this 10 student school size,” Navarre said.

Lynn Gattis, R-Wasilla, is one representative that has been on record saying she is considering a proposing a bill that would raise the minimum. As of the first 2016 pre-filing released Friday, Jan. 8, nothing has been submitted that would potentially change the minimum. The second pre-file release is Friday, Jan. 15.

Reach Kelly Sullivan at kelly.sullivan@peninsulaclarion.com.

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