By Jenny Neyman
It’s official — with a vote of the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District Board of Education at its meeting Monday night, Soldotna and Skyview high schools will be consolidated by fall 2015, and possibly even the year before.
What’s less official is how, exactly, all the details will work out, especially regarding seventh through ninth grades, as the future configuration of those middle school grades has yet to be decided. What was determined Monday is board support for the idea that combining Skyview and SoHi’s 10th through 12th grades into one school is a way to provide diverse course offerings and other opportunities jeopardized by the continuing trend of declining enrollment in the schools.
“The reason we’re doing this is because the opportunities it creates for kids in having a unified high school, and we can’t forget that. And the sooner we can get to that, I think, the better it’s going to be,” said board member Tim Navarre.
According to the district, enrollment at both Skyview and SoHi in the 2006-07 school year was 1,051 students. It’s projected to drop to 815 in the 2013-14 school year and to 766 by 2016-17. But the decline isn’t evenly distributed, with 150 to 160 incoming freshmen expected at SoHi and just 50 at Skyview.
Neither school is housing its designed capacity of students, with Skyview at 323 students this year and SoHi at 472, though neither building is big enough to take on the combined population of all current Soldotna ninth- through 12th-graders. So the district is proposing to house the approximately 600 10th- through 12th-grade students at SoHi, and figure out another plan for the area’s seventh through ninth grades.
“Is there a perfect solution to any of this? Probably not. There are a lot of factors there that need to be put together. Our ultimate goal here is to provide better programs for the kids at the high school level, and this option does that for us,” said Sean Dusek, assistant superintendent of instruction.
Several parents speaking at the 7 p.m. board meeting and during a preceding public hearing at 6 p.m. supported the change if it will mean a more-rounded high school experience.
Scott Miller graduated from SoHi before the newer Skyview opened and the area’s high school population was split. He remembers having several more foreign-language and advanced-placement classes to choose from than do his daughters, currently in grades seven and 10.
“I see the opportunities that I had that my daughters don’t have,” he said.
Amy Hogue, a school district employee and mom with kids in second and fourth grades, sees a similar lack of opportunities, not at all what she would expect in schools serving an urban — by Alaska standards — area.
“When I look at my children’s future and the high school offerings I find it shameful that a city school is not offering a great selection of courses for kids,” she said.
Hogue has seen class offerings decline as enrollment has declined, resulting in a shrinking per-student funding allotment from the state.
“I don’t like the road we’re on. I support the configuration, changing it,” she said. “… Ten years ago this was brought up. I felt 10 years ago we could have made a change and not been where we’re at now.”
Christina Morrison is another local mother who also went to school in Soldotna, and she’d like to see more classes and programs in high school that will prepare college students for their futures after graduation.
“I do believe my child’s future is in this configuration’s hands. If we continue to allow the numbers to drop and we continue to allow our classes to be taken away because of the numbers, you’re not helping my child’s future,” she said.
Preparing for the future was one of the reasons cited by the district for recommending the consolidation.
“This is not just about students that are currently in high school at Skyview or Soldotna,” said John O’Brien, director of secondary education for KPBSD. “This is really about the little feet, as well … . The second-graders, the third-graders and their parents who are currently working with those students in the elementary school and middle school to inherit and come to a high school experience in the Soldotna area that we think we’re providing them with the very best programs, teachers and processes for making decisions and for educating them. So this is about the little feet as well as the big feet.”
Still, just as with little feet turning into big feet, the change will elicit some growing pains as the logistics are figured out and everyone settles into the new configuration.
“The high school situation is very complicated because of the whole social, emotional piece. Mascots and colors will be a big deal if we pursue this. That is going to take time to work through with this community,” Dusek said, in an afternoon work-session presentation to the school board.
Staffing is one area yet to be determined, particularly in considering duplications between the two schools, such as principals and assistant principals. Dr. Steve Atwater, KPBSD superintendent, said that the building administrators are in good standing with the district and would be retained, though in what school or position hasn’t yet been determined.
“That hasn’t been formally decided in terms of the staffing. It would have to be part of the reconfiguration conversation that would ensue,” Atwater said.
Costs of consolidation also haven’t yet been determined, though it’s expected that it will result in a net budgetary savings from the efficiency of running a single, combined high school. Atwater said that the district anticipates eliminating five positions in the consolidation, resulting in a savings of more than $400,000 a year.
“There will be additional costs that come on top of that, but if you’re expecting that this is going to be a net big increase in expenditures we’re not anticipating that at all. We’re not blowing up the budget by doing this. We’re probably going to save money by doing this,” Atwater said.
The largest issue still needing to be settled is the future of seventh through ninth grades. Currently, Soldotna Middle School is home to the area’s seventh and eighth grades, with ninth grades in each high school building and the separate, seventh- through 12th-grade River City Academy, a standards-based program located at Skyview.
The district is proposing two options — establish two seventh- through ninth-grade middle schools, one at the current Soldotna Middle building, and one at the current Skyview facility. The other option is to create a seventh- and eighth-grade middle school at Skyview and put ninth grade and River City Academy at the current Soldotna Middle facility. One of the big questions there is what opportunities ninth-graders would have to participate in sports, music and other extracurricular activities, especially in a district-, region- or statewide basis with more-traditional ninth- through 12th-grade schools.
The district requested to have until the fall to finalize a plan to bring forward for board approval, since the separate ninth-grade option is one with which the public might not be familiar. The district had originally pursued that idea but was told by the state that KPBSD could lose about $800,000 in funding because the reconfiguration would result in the net loss of a school. Upon further consultation, it appears the district can retain that funding if it approaches the ninth grade as a separate school, even if it’s housed in a building with other students or programs.
“We don’t want to just come with a recommendation on a ninth-grade house when we dropped that earlier in the process,” Dusek said. “We want to have more time to take a closer look at that, get back with the community, have some more discussion on that and then come back in the fall next year with the recommendation of how that would work.”
The board OK’d giving the district until fall to finalize a plan for the middle school component of the reconfiguration. It also expanded the potential timeline of implementing the high school changes, modifying the language to say, “no later than the fall of 2015.” The idea being, once the decision is made and the change inevitable, why wait? If the change could be responsibly made in 2014, that would spare the schools an additional lame-duck year.
“The longer we’re in that limbo, it’s only going to hurt our programs because we don’t know how to plan when we don’t know what the final result is going to be,” said Matt Fischer, a teacher at Soldotna Middle School.
Rocky Laster, of Kasilof, said he’d rather the change come sooner than later, for the benefit of students.
“I don’t see any point in making all of our kids go though a year of substandard education with substandard offerings when we could push this thing through and have that year spent in a new system set up,” he said.
Dusek said that the consolidation could potentially be carried out in fall 2014.
“It’s going to be a heavy lift. … But I think we could pull it off,” he said.
If that proves to be the case, Bill Holt and the rest of the board voted to allow the district the flexibility to proceed in 2014.
“I realize it’s dynamic and things are changing all the time but the predominance is that sooner is better than later if it’s at all possible. I understand it may be a difficult thing to do that quickly but if it comes about, the momentum kind of works that way and we can do it quickly, I think overall that would be better,” Holt said.
Not everyone was in agreement. Two Skyview students, Austin Laber and James Gallagher, gave a presentation advocating keeping the high schools separate. They’re already high-performing schools, Austin said, and he’d like that to continue.
“Across the board — attendance rates, test scores, graduation rate, dropout rates — SoHi and Skyview are both consistently high in these. So why does it work? Well, they’re smaller schools, so you’re able to have the individual basis with the kids,” he said.
James argued from a facilities standpoint. He’d also rather the high schools stay separate, but if they did combine, he thinks using the Skyview campus makes more sense than SoHi. What if renewed oil and gas exploration activity on the peninsula results in a boom in population, expanding school enrollment numbers? He sees Skyview as being designed for expansion, and not SoHi.
“This is not something that needs to be over-engineered. This needs to be simple but yet work well for our future, our community’s future,” James said.
James’ father, Mike Gallagher, supported the students’ presentation. He asked that district administration share with the public documentation of research and other information the district has used to come to its recommendations, and that costs be vetted before the process begun. He recommends a deliberate process, rather than a quick one.
“It almost feels like the Kenai Peninsula School District is going to fall off the cliff if we don’t get this taken care of by 2015. … Once we’ve made the decision, later on we can figure out the consequences, later on we can figure out the cost. Is that the way we truly want to govern?” he said.
Board member Marty Anderson also took up the question of population trends. Since the foundation of the state funding formula is allocated to districts in a per-student allotment, KPBSD projects area population trends as they relate to future school enrollments. This can involve dialogue with school administrators as well as community, governmental and business representatives to gauge trends as they develop.
Still, Anderson questioned whether the district is taking into account developing activity in the oil and gas industry on the peninsula, and what that might mean for enrollment in Soldotna-area schools. He urged caution, at the very least.
“I’m not sure if we’ve done that work to see if those are going to result in additional jobs positions and, thus, students. As far as myself, I don’t think I could support anything less than something that happens in 2015, because I believe that there’s a lot of factors at work here and that we need very thorough study and consideration of many different things before we make a decision that might have collateral damage and (that we) have to suffer with for quite some time,” he said.
Anderson was the lone dissenting vote in the board deciding to move ahead with the high school consolidation and planning of middle school reconfigurations. Others commented that it’s time to move ahead to offer a better high school experience.
“I feel pretty comfortable about students coming together from Skyview, from SoHi, because I think we have people that will see them as students, as individuals, and I think that can only be a good thing,” said board member Sunni Hilts.