Kenai Peninsula Borough School District Board of Education meets May 6th in Seward. Heidi Zemach photo
Heidi Zemach for Seward City News
The KPBSD Board of Education’s meeting at the Seward High School Monday night was an eventful, at times dramatic and emotional affair, probably better attended than most board meetings in the district’s larger communities are, said one board member during a much-needed break. Another board member, Liz Downing, from Homer joked that Seward is “the new Homer,” leading some in the audience to wonder if that was meant as an insult or a compliment.
The biggest piece of news for Seward was the board’s decision to delay the Seward Middle School configuration proposal to include the sixth grade in the middle school, in order to allow more time for study, discussion, and planning. The board directed the administration to make its recommendation to school board by October of 2013. That timeline was met with some disappointment by those in the audience who had hoped that the move could occur by the coming fall, rather than more than a year from now. The school went from offering eight to only four elective offerings this year due to lower enrollment numbers, and the public had been told there would probably be fewer or possibly no electives offered next year if the status quo were maintained—except for those that could be included within regular classes, such Art, Music, or the new Lego-Robotics.
There were a great many comments by members of the public about the proposed sixth-grade move. Six parents who spoke out were clearly in favor of the move to the middle school, two spoke in more general terms, one hoping that a more beneficial funding formula could be enacted for helping to staff the smallest district schools, and another thanking the KPBSD administrators for allowing SMS Principal Jason Bickling to continue on as principal of the Moose Pass School next year.
Maya Moriarty, Site Council member, speaks to board of education. Heidi Zemach photo
Maya Moriarty, a site-based council member who had enjoyed a very “enriched” educational environment growing up, said her daughter had started to cry when she explained what she would lose if they didn’t move the sixth grade up. But she calmed down a little, when her mother told her that KPBSD Superintendent Steve Atwater had given the school an additional half a (FTE) position, Moriarty said.
Prior to the general meeting, the board also held a late-afternoon work session to discuss the process by which the principals and site council had reached their recommendation to approve the move. Another work session also took place on several proposed policy revisions to the site-council boards district-wide. It included a revised proposal initiated by local District 6 school board representative Lynn Hohl to have individual site councils decide whether principals/administrators should be able to vote on their own advisory boards. Earlier, she had proposed that the principals not be allowed to vote, as they do in Seward. The revisions were removed from consideration on the meeting agenda, however, when they felt more discussion was needed.
Seward teacher, union and NEA rep Mark Fraad speaks to board of education. Heidi Zemach photo.
One longtime elementary school PE teacher, Mark Fraad, who is also the Region Three National Education Association representative, gave a speech critical of the way his own community and leadership had handled the decision-making process on the proposed middle school reconfiguration. It echoed some of the issues presented to the site council and board earlier by the one dissenting Seward site-council member Amy Hankins, who was absent from Monday’s meeting. Fraad said the process was flawed, that the decision was fast-tracked, and that the public had received misinformation. He also said that those who had expressed differing views on the decision had felt “threatened, intimidated, publically shunned,” and that friendships had been damaged. As a solution, he proposed that the board revisit the decision with help of an independent third-party mediator. The most important thing a teacher can teacher their children is to speak out for what they believe in.
Six other speakers who addressed the topic disputed Fraad’s statement, and of that of others who felt that the process had been unfair. Parents on the site-based council, such as Mica Van Buskirk and Moriarty again repeated that the only dissenting vote was by a single site-council member. Van Buskirk called Fraad’s statements “blown out of proportion,” and said she had not personally heard of any threats or intimidation, and that to her knowledge no friendships were lost. Moriarty returned to the podium to second those sentiments, and ended her comments by leaving the board, whose decision it would be, with a reading of the Serenity Prayer.
Seward-based board member Lynn Hohl said she really hoped that the board would look into its funding formula for smaller schools. It’s that formula, that bases staffing of schools on student enrollment numbers, that is perhaps most responsible for the loss of staffing and electives that created the reason for the sixth-grade move proposal.
Several speakers praised the two principal’s accomplishments during the meeting, especially the efforts and good intentions of Jason Bickling, who they said has done an outstanding job with the school during his three years as the Seward Middle School principal. Earlier, Bickling had given an impressive presentation about the new focus of the middle school and its teachers to make learning more relevant. They had built a successful online learning environment, with blogs for each class, had worked to enhance student’s leadership skills, their teamwork, and moral character, had invited expert speakers to enrich their classroom learning experience, and had tried to get the students out into the community more with field trips and service projects. The new debate club also came forward to demonstrate their speaking skills.
Seward High School Principal Trevan Walker also gave a presentation on his vision for an improved “Hybrid High School.” Currently, data show that at any given time of the school day, only 120-150 of the school’s 178 enrolled students are sitting in front of a teacher. With 16-33 percent of students not in a traditional class, but instead taking online or distance education classes, community college classes, or graduating early, why not do away with the traditional bell schedule and truly embrace the 21st century, with all its alternative education possibilities, and become a hybrid high school?, Walker said. He proposed merging distance learning with greater opportunities for those students to regularly meet with their online teachers, and creating a college student-union mezzanine on the upper level of the school, where students with laptops can study at booths or tables in a supervised environment while others are working in more traditional classrooms. Increasing numbers of teachers have already begun embracing non-traditional, online forms of teaching and self- learning, embracing the new paradigm shift in education, he said.
On another matter parents Erin Knotek and Julie Lindquist, and Josephine Braun, a high school student, spoke out against revisions by the Kenai Peninsula School Activities Association (KPSAA) regarding borough athletic competitions. These revisions would make attendance at the borough competitions mandatory for all district Track and Field and Cross Country teams. All said they trust their own coaches to decide what is best for their teams, and said that not all coaches felt it best to have their teams compete against teams from schools in larger divisions, which has sometimes proven unfair to the students involved.
Terri Tidwell, head custodian at Skyview High School, also spoke passionately about all of the unrecognized support employees including the custodians, aides, food-service providers and secretaries, who work so hard behind the scenes to keep the borough schools functioning. The district has received the resignations of many dedicated support staff this year, she said, many with two or three decades of work put into their schools, and totaling 400 years of experience, Tidwell said. Among them was Susan St. Amand, with 30 years of food-service for the Seward Schools.