Homer Alaska - News

Story last updated at 4:28 PM on Wednesday, April 25, 2012

'No changes to southern peninsula transportation,' says school district

By McKibben Jackinsky
Staff Writer

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Worries over potentially changing bus schedules and daily start and end times for schools on the southern peninsula, and concerns that was raising — possible lost of before and after school programs, lack of an activity bus, childcare difficulties and conflicts with parents' work schedules — can be set aside. For now, at least, thanks to Senate Bill 182.

Passage of the legislation eases the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District's $750,000 student transportation woes, as well as those of districts around the state. The legislation covers costs projected for the coming school year, including a 1.5 percent increase beginning in fiscal year 2014.

"Senate Bill 182 will reimburse us for the full amount we need,' said Dr. Steve Atwater, KPBSD superintendent. "That was the vehicle that got us the money."

The news comes as schools from Ninilchik south were preparing for changes being discussed for the 2012-2013 school year. At Homer High School, a straw poll conducted about a month ago asked students to voice their preference of an earlier or later start time.

"Surprisingly, 60 percent of students selected an earlier start time," said Dr. Allan Gee, the school principal. "When questioned, most of it stemmed around athletic events, after-school practices and jobs after school as a reason. However, w hen I spoke with the kids this week, they were fine accepting the regular time."

The school's faculty, staff and site council had already voiced their request that no change be made to the school schedule.

Although the problem is solved for now, discussion on student transportation is far from over.

"The issue will crop up whether the 1.5 increase will be sufficient to stay current with what we're doing," said Atwater. "The cost of busing is going up, so we could be back where we were in four or five years from now."

The proposal considered by school district administrators to close the budget gap aligned transportation services on the southern peninsula with those provided elsewhere in the district, namely changing from a single-tier system of one bus making one pickup and delivery to a double-tier system of one bus making two pickups and deliveries. That, according to district calculations, would have resulted in six fewer buses for a savings of $526,605.

A double-tier system requires schools to share buses. To make that adjustment on the southern peninsula, schools would have had to alter daily start and end times. As an example, McNeil Canyon Elementary School would have shared buses with Homer High and Homer Middle schools. The high and middle schools would have started and ended their day earlier; McNeil's schedule would have been pushed back an hour.

The district held meetings in Ninilchik, Anchor Point and Homer to gather input from affected families and school faculty and staff. It also took comments over the district's website. At a March work session of the school board, Assistant Superintendent Dave Jones showed the board a binder filled with feedback from concerned families.

At that meeting, board members raised the question of equity throughout the district. That is an issue needing resolution, according to Atwater.

"We can put this on the shelf for now, but not put it away for good," he said.

Joe Arness, school board president, agreed.

"Now we have the money to do what we do, so that can continue for the next school year, but during the course of the conversation, this whole business came to light that what we're doing is different in Homer than other areas," said Arness. "I've heard a couple of times from board members that, gee, maybe this is something we should be looking at in terms of equity if nothing else."

For school board member Sunni Hilts of Seldovia, the savings of a two-tier bus system "can't be ignored."

"We have to think about some new ways to do things. I think this conversation will come back," she said. "We definitely have to keep looking at efficiencies next year."

School board member Liz Downing of Homer said she "didn't know" if the conversation would continue, "but certainly there was a great deal of concern. It impacts a lot of people, a lot of opportunities for kids for after school activities, sports. It's just a wide-ranging impact for everyone."

Pete Swanson, principal of McNeil Canyon Elementary School, was happy his school would have the same schedule for the 2012-2013 school year.

"I think the majority of people are happy about that, that we can continue," he said, adding that until Gov. Sean Parnell signs the legislation, however, it could still change. "When the governor makes the determination of what he'll veto or not veto, we'll have a much better picture of where the district's headed with the funding."

Gee also anticipates the discussion about transportation on the southern peninsula isn't over.

"If its something where we can realize a savings, it must be something we ultimately consider," he said.

Chapman School in Anchor Point stood to see an increase of students had the proposed changes taken effect. Principal Conrad Woodhead estimated between 20-40 students from the Anchor Point currently take advantage of available bus space to attend schools in Homer. That space would have been reduced under the district's proposal.

"Obviously, I'd like to see Anchor Point kids go to school in Anchor Point," said Woodhead. "We were looking forward to that possibility."

The opportunity may come again.

"The school board's going to receive a memo from me at the May 7 board meeting that'll summarize what's happened with transportation and recommend the conversation continue in terms of equity," said Atwater. "At that point, they may direct us to continue the conversation this fall."

The next meeting of the Kenai Peninsula Borough School Board will be held at Seward High School in Seward on May 7.

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