Homer Alaska - News

Story last updated at 5:24 PM on Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Area school times may change to reduce transportation costs

By McKibben Jackinsky
Staff Writer

The Kenai Peninsula Borough School District is looking for answers to a $750,000 budget deficit for transporting students to and from school. At a meeting at the Mariner Theatre on Tuesday, solutions being considered by the district raised questions from an estimated 50 parents, students, teachers and school administrators attending the meeting.

Representing the district were Dave Jones, assistant superintendent who supervises transportation; Dave Spence, director of planning and operations; Nan Spooner, transportation coordinator; and Nema Arndt, transportation router.

Changes being proposed to resolve the budget gap include a two-tier, rather than a one-tier bus system for schools from Ninilchik south. A one-tier system uses one bus per route. A two-tier system, currently used in the central peninsula, uses one bus for two routes. Jones said that would reduce the yearly bus cost per student on the southern peninsula from $550.63 to $367.08.

That change would require adjustments to schools' start and end times in order to accommodate the sharing of buses by elementary schools and middle and high schools. For instance, middle and high schools would start and end earlier in the day, with elementary schools later, with time factored in for buses to reach the most distant part of the route.

Chapman, current: start 8:40 a.m.; end 3:10 p.m.; proposed: start 9 a.m.; end 3:35 p.m.

Homer High, current: start 8:30 a.m., end 3:15 p.m.; proposed: start 7:40 a.m.; end 2:15 p.m.;

Homer Middle, current: start 8:35 a.m., end 3:10 p.m.; proposed: start 7:50 a.m., end 2:30 p.m.;

McNeil Canyon, current: start 7:50 a.m.; end 2:20 p.m.; proposed: start 9 a.m.; end 3:35 p.m.;

Ninilchik, current: start 8:45 a.m., end 3:15 p.m.; proposed: start 7:40 a.m., end 2:15 p.m.;

Paul Banks, current: start 8:30 a.m.; end 3 p.m.; proposed: start 8:45 a.m.; end 3:25 p.m.;

West Homer, current: start 8:25 a.m.; end 3:15 p.m.; proposed: start 8:55 a.m.; end 3:45 p.m.;

Fireweed Academy's east campus lacks space for buses to get in and out in a timely manner. The district's proposed start and end times for West Homer presume Fireweed classes will remain at West Homer.

The proposal also included several boundary changes. Jones said the only change causing concern among parents was the one considered for the Spencer Drive to Kachemak Drive area. However, one parent said her residence is situated such that the boundaries have one of her children attending high school in Ninilchik, while another attends junior high in Homer.

Students' out of area attendance also is being closely examined. It is district policy for parents to provide transportation of students attending a school out of their area, but students have been allowed to ride on buses if space allows. It is possible fewer buses and changing school schedules would eliminate that option, leaving parents to either carpool, provide their own transportation or have their students attend schools in the area in which they live.

"How do you work an 8-5 job with that kind of schedule?" asked a parent whose son attends McNeil Canyon. How do I get my son to school in the morning? ... Does this mean my son can't come into town on the bus to participate in Boys & Girls Club so I can work the end of my shift? "

"Those are all good questions, ma'am," said Jones. "We are trying to look at solutions, but also trying to face the fact we can't continue to spend money we don't have."

When others expressed concern at the impacts the proposals would have on McNeil, Jones said, "It is affecting McNeil greatly, but the folks in Ninilchik don't feel it's only affecting McNeil. When I was in Ninilchik, I was just as adamantly addressed there as I am here."

Considering families with students in more than one school, a Paul Banks parent said the proposed changes "are going to be hard for working parents, no matter how we look at this."

When switching the middle and high schools to later start-end times and keeping elementary schools on an earlier schedule was suggested, Homer High School Principal Alan Gee said his school's current schedule already makes it difficult to schedule teams to come to Homer. Shifting events to later in the day would make it even more difficult.

"Can I start at 9 a.m.? No," said Gee.

The final comment of the evening came from Debbie Carey of Ninilchik.

"We have to find a way to work together and figure out what the solution is without taking money out of the classrooms," said Carey.

At one time, the state of Alaska reimbursed the total cost of transporting students. About six years ago, the reimbursement rate changed to a specific amount per student, adding to the financial burden on school districts. In March, the $750,000 jump in transportation costs surfaced during the RFP, request for proposal, process when the current transportation provider's contract was nearing its end.

The district decided to subsidize transportation costs with $750,000 from the general fund and pursue a one- rather than five-year contract, while it explored increasing transportation efficiencies and attemped to attract additional vendors.

Community reactions and suggestions have been gathered through local meetings and the district's website.

"Everybody that's corresponded with us, we have it here," said Jones, holding up a three-ring binder. "When you look at the thickness, you see that it's a hot-topic issue."

Response to the latest RFP will be addressed at the school board's March 5 work session, with a decision for addressing the $750,000 transportation budget deficit made at the board's May 7 meeting. The board's plan of action will be put in effect at the beginning of the 2012-2013 school year.

McKibben Jackinsky can be reached at mckibben.jackinsky@homernews.com.