Story last updated at 2:00 p.m. Thursday, May 9, 2002

District weighs school closings
by Carey James
Staff Writer

As the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District walks the tightrope to balance its budget each year, some recurring questions arise.

Should the district cut co-curricular activities such as sports and music? What would happen if class sizes increased? And when is it time to close a school?

The latter, said district Superintendent Donna Peterson, is a tough question that can't be answered without lots of discussion and calculation.

But seven schools have been identified as possibilities for closure including three in the Homer area: Paul Banks Elementary, Razdolna and Chapman schools.

Peterson cautions that this does not mean the district will close any of the schools. "I think people need to know that the district is not slated to close any of these schools," she said, adding that before the district moved ahead, a long community discussion period would occur.

Unlike the other potential budget-reducers, the district can't close a school without following certain guidelines set by the state. And students won't be added to another school's population unless the total population is less than 85 percent of the school's capacity, allowing for future enrollment increases.

The district identified these seven schools based on those parameters alone, and has yet to investigate whether savings would be great enough to warrant closing the sites.

If any of the schools were closed, savings would only be found from the cost of maintaining the facility since teachers would simply transfer to the new school with the students. In addition, the state's funding formula favors small single-site schools.

"Our next logical step is to figure out what the hard and fast savings would be," Peterson said.

The Paul Banks closure and transfer of students to West Homer Elementary School would not be possible based on projected enrollment figures until 2006, while Razdolna's students could be moved to McNeil Canyon Elementary School and Homer's middle and high schools in 2004. According to enrollment alone, Chapman School could be currently combined with Paul Banks, West Homer and/or Homer Middle School without exceeding the 85 percent capacity figure.

Peterson said the first step is for the school board to discuss the idea and identify what locations may need further scrutiny.

"I want to hear from them (the board)," she said. "I want to know at what point it is worth it. I think it is possible the board will say we don't want to do any of these things."

If the board decides to look further at the potential gains and ramification of any of the school closures, that study will not likely start until this fall, Peterson said.

The other two savings options, cutting activities completely and increasing class sizes, have serious striking points against them already. If the district completely eliminated all co-curricular activities in every school, the move would only save the district less than 1 percent of its operating budget, Peterson said, barely enough to cover the cost of one year's salary increases.

The second option, increasing class sizes, received a scathing review from the school board already, she said. "The board is just adamant that they are not going to increase class size."

These three savings options aren't the only ideas being explored. Next year, Cooper Landing School and Moose Pass School will share a principal for the first time.

Factors such as future enrollment trends and state funding may put off or eliminate the need to discuss school closures, Peterson said, but at this point, discussion is warranted.

"We are starting by laying this basic information out for folks, then having a quality discussion about our options," she said. "We wouldn't be very prudent if we didn't talk about these things."