Homer Alaska - News

Story last updated at 3:38 PM on Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Future of bus funding, start times 'foggy'

By McKibben Jackinsky
Staff Writer

How to fill a $750,000 hole in the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District's student transportation budget? The answer is yet to be found in spite of a proposal from district administrators, public meetings, requests for proposals from possible vendors, feedback from the public and legislation currently in Senate Finance.

"If you guys are looking for a picture of clarity on transportation, I'm sorry. It's very foggy right now," Dave Jones, KPBSD assistant superintendent, told the school board at last week's work session. "A lot of things could change, but we're going to stay on top of that and try to figure out where we're at."

The dilemma, according to Joe Arness, school board president is "a thorny issue."

Senate Bill 182 seeks to increase the state reimbursement to school districts offering transportation. However, it wouldn't make up the difference in the district's budget.

"The bottom line is after the legislation is done, we'll still be looking at a deficit in our general fund," said Jones. "The question is how big is that deficit."

Beginning in December, the district held meetings in Homer, Anchor Point and Ninilchik to discuss the district's proposal to the budget deficit problem and to gather ideas for possible solutions. Jones has since received complaints the district was unclear about the meeting's subject.

"A comment from one parent was that we had mislabeled it from the start. 'When you said it was a transportation meeting, you should have said it was a school starting time meeting,'" said Jones. "Yeah, I probably should have, but I didn't know it at the time."

The administration's proposal focuses on a shift from a one- to a two-tier bus system for schools from Ninilchik south, meaning one bus services two routes rather than a route per bus. It would reduce the total number of buses from 76 to 70, but only drop the transportation budget from $7.4 million to $6.9 million, falling short of the $750,000 needed.

Changing the southern peninsula to the two-tier system in place in the central peninsula is "definitely an equity issue," Jones said.

Sterling board member Marty Anderson questioned why Homer-area transportation should be different than other areas of the district.

"Have we linked it to graduation rates? Are students doing so much better in Homer than anywhere else that it warrants the cost?" said Anderson.

"We've started trying to look at that information," said Jones.

The proposal and resulting change to start and end times, potential shift in school enrollments, possible impacts on before- and after-school programs and the challenge to working parents has drawn enough feedback to fill a three-ring notebook.

The proposal pairs routes for different schools and that means altering schools' start and end times. For instance, McNeil Canyon Elementary School would be partnered with Homer Middle and Homer High schools. Currently McNeil Canyon classes begin at 7:50 a.m. and end at 2:20 p.m.; Homer Middle begins at 8:35 a.m. and ends at 3:10 p.m.; Homer High begins at 8:30 a.m. and ends at 3:10 p.m. Under the proposal, McNeil Canyon would begin at 9 a.m. and end at 3:35 p.m., Homer Middle would start at 7:50 a.m. and end at 2:30 p.m. and Homer High would start at 7:40 a.m. and end at 2:15 p.m.

In support of maintaining McNeil Canyon's current schedule, Sunni Hilts, board member from Seldovia who represents southern peninsula schools, said, "What they're doing works. Part of what they're doing is after-school programs and they have a large population that are ESL (English as a second language) and need that extra time."

Of West Homer Elementary School, Hilts noted resources offered for special education students.

Annaleah Ernst, a Nikiski High School student who serves as the board's student representative, said Homer High students "really do not want" their start time changed. An option for the middle and high schools to start later if McNeil Canyon started earlier also was unacceptable.

"Making it later, sports becomes a significant problem. Earlier, a lot of kids are extremely displeased. Nothing is really going to work for them," said Ernst.

Kenai board member Sammy Crawford brought the discussion back to equity.

"If we can save this money and put it in the classroom, that's what we need to do," said Crawford.

"Equity throughout the district is important."

The board will decide how the transportation budget shortfall will be addressed at its May meeting.

For the district proposal, visit www.kpbsd.k12.ak.us. For Senate Bill 182, visit www.legis.state.ak.us/basis/start.asp.