Web posted Thursday, April 4, 2002

Veteran educators leave schools

by Carey James
Staff Writer

Seven of Homer's longtime teachers and education staff are retiring this year and at least four more educators in the area have resigned.

Retiring are both Homer High guidance counselors, James Ballentine and Shawnie Olson, as well as the high school's longtime language arts teacher Catherine Rate and social studies teacher Barbara Browning. Razdolna principal and teacher David Evans III as well as Bonnie Evans, the school's grade five through 10 teacher, are retiring at the end of this year, as is Deborah Smith, a third-grade teacher at West Homer Elementary.

The retirement rush comes after the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District announced a limited time "service recognition award," a $7,500 bonus for employees who had been with the district at least 20 years. In the Homer area, 25 teachers qualified to take the retirement incentive.

"There are two sides to this," said Homer High Principal Ron Keffer. "We are losing some of the most truly capable folks out there. They are just top-notch. It's hard to overstate how good they are at what they do. The other side of the coin is that as time passes, people do retire. When they do, it's a challenge because they were so good, but it's an opportunity to have new faces and new approaches. That's the nature of human life."

The simultaneous departure of the high school's veteran guidance counseling team will leave a large hole in the school's staff, Keffer said, as will the other retirements.

Olson and Ballentine had worked together at Homer High for 19 years, impacting the lives of thousands of teens navigating the difficult path to adulthood.

Many of the other educators retiring this year have also touched the lives of countless students, such as Smith, who has worked with the district for 32 years.

The district offered the retirement incentive after funding cuts and declining enrollment forced a 26-position reduction by next year.

"We are not trying to negate the experience that will be lost from the people who have been with the district for 20 years or more, but many are looking at (retiring) anyway," said Deb Germano, district school board member. "While the experience is a loss, we have got to look at the long haul. It's our obligation to do what's best for the kids."

The district's rationale for encouraging the veteran teachers' retirement was that many of the teachers would soon leave regardless, but if they chose to wait a year or two, the district would have to lay off many of its younger teachers this year. This way, some of the younger staff get to stay.

But the plan did not pan out entirely as expected. The district said Wednesday that it will still issue 34 pink slips, totaling 26 full-time positions districtwide. At the same time, however, more resignations continue to come in and some hiring will occur due to the fact that the resignations and retirements didn't necessarily come from the places where reductions are needed.

At Homer High, the school was slated to lose 1.25 teachers due to declining enrollment. Now, the school faces some tough decisions on how to restructure its staff, and what positions to replace.

"How we allocate our resources hasn't been decided yet, but we will decide pretty quickly," Keffer said.

Homer area schools will also start next year without Paul Banks principal Rich Toymil, who resigned his position after five years with the district. Toymil is returning to the Bering Strait School District as the director of instructional services, a position he said he hopes will be both challenging and rewarding.

Also leaving their Homer area teaching positions this May are Matthew Estill, a special education resource for Homer Middle School, Port Graham and Nanwalek School, and Sue Strutz, a physical education teacher at Homer Middle School.

In addition to approval of the long list of retirements and resignations, the district Board of Education approved an amended budget at last Monday's meeting for the 2002-2003 school year. The $74.4 million operating budget ($89.9 million with all funds) reinstates the education staff's raise program, known as step increases. Germano said the district chose to use recently discovered funds from the borough to fund the raises, while maintaining cuts to technology, supplies, the teacher specialist program as well as funding for new books in health and social studies.

She said the budget remains fluid, however, until state education funding is finalized, and even beyond.