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School district considers change to bus schedules

Kenai Peninsula Borough School District

With decreased funding on the horizon, the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District is considering making changes to bus routes on the southern peninsula to save money.

  While the crux of the debate is school buses, the issue as a whole is all about funding.

“This is an 'if' right now. But, it’s also looking at our fiscal reality. So, we do want our parents involved. We want our communities involved. We want to be transparent about this and we want to serve the needs of our children so that they can have the best education possible. We want people to realize that this is not just about transportation. The transportation changes, potentially, if they’re made, will affect our school start and end times on the southern peninsula,” said Pegge Erkeneff, communications specialist for the school district.

The district is considering shifting around some of the start and end times for schools from Ninilchik south to save money on school buses starting in the 2017-2018 school year.

That’s because when the state budget had more wiggle room than it does now, the legislature put in place inflation funding that was tied to its grant allocations for student transportation.

“However, that’s sunsetting. So, now, there isn’t the increase every year based on inflation. There’s going to be a cost that’s tied directly each year to just the number of students that are enrolled in what we call our average daily membership," she said.

The district currently runs 56 general education school buses and 20 special education, or SPED, buses on the southern peninsula. If all of those buses kept running, the district would be short by about $140,000 next year, $250,000 the year after, and about $750,000 by fiscal year 2021.

That’s compounded by the fact that, based on need, the district is looking at adding two additional SPED buses next year, which would bring the deficit up to about $400,000 next year and more than $1 million by 2021.

“If transportation costs more than what we’re given by the state – that’s a designated fund – the district has to pay for that difference, or that deficit, from our general funds, which does take money away from potentially keeping it in the classroom for our students," she said.

The school board has a few options. They can choose to operate at a deficit and pull money from the general fund. Or, they can look at changing the busing system.

“When  you move from a single tier route system to a double tier route system, what it does is gives you the ability to reduce the number of buses you need to have," said Dave Jones, assistant superintendent of the school district.

He outlined the issue at a series of public meetings held earlier this month in Homer and Ninilchik.

  “In a one-tier system, one bus serves each school. So, all the schools in an area can start at the same time and end at the same time because each route is served by one bus," explained Erkeneff.

This is the system the southern peninsula has now. The central peninsula, however, has been on a two-tier system since the early 1980s.

That’s when a school bus does double duty.

“So, it does two morning pickups a day and two drop-offs at the end of the day. So, the two-tier means that one bus can serve two routes a day," said Erkeneff.

But, that’s only possible if some schools start earlier and others start later, so the buses have time to drop off one bunch of kids, turn around, pick up others, and take them later.

“What will happen is, if we have to make this change here, in Homer, there will need to be a difference between the high school, middle school, and elementary schools," said Jones. "What will happen on this portion of the central peninsula is Ninilchik will be paired with Chapman. So, either Chapman or Ninilchik will need to start first and then 45 to 50 minutes later, the other will start."

That has some parents, like Deb Blossom, worried about the effect the changes will have on their kids.

“I’m concerned how it will work for some parents that work a nine-to-five job. If their kids are getting out of school at 2:20 or 2:30 p.m., what are they going to do for that time period when their parents are still at work? Here in Ninilchik, we don’t have day cares or a Boys & Girls Club, so it can be a real issue for some parents," said Blossom.

She also wonders what the difference in performance would be for students who have to get up and out by 7 a.m. as opposed to 8 a.m. or later.

“Well, I’m open to whatever’s good for kids educationally. If we can find research that supports giving them an earlier start time, then let’s look at it. The stuff I’ve seen doesn’t support that," Blossom said. "Then, I guess, if it comes down to two schools having to change start times, I would hope that we split the difference so one school isn’t absorbing all of it themselves.”

Other parents at the meeting were concerned about later end times making it hard for their kids to participate in sports and other afterschool activities, especially if they have to commute to them as many Anchor Point families do by bringing their kids to Homer in the afternoon.

“The question to be asked is, given our resources, what is the very best thing we can do for children? This is challenging, but we have an opportunity to make a positive change right now," said Erkeneff.

The school board will discuss their options during their next regular meeting. At that point, they’ll decide if they want to make a change or if they want to operate at a deficit.

“If they make a change and say that the southern peninsula buses will go to two tiers, then we have a year to have a lot of community meetings and a lot of parent and staff involvement as to what that’s going to look like and how that’s going to affect our communities," she said.

The next school board meeting will be held June 6 at 6 p.m. in the borough assembly chambers.