School board turns its eyes to ‘small’ schools

The board of education is building a committee to address issues for small schools

After months of hearing public input on the unique needs of the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District’s small schools, the board of education is building a committee to address those issues.

The move to create a small schools committee comes as some of the district’s small and rural schools report limited staff.

Zen Kelly, the former president of the board of education, initiated the committee shortly before becoming board vice president earlier this year.

He said Wednesday he was motivated to create the committee after people from around the school district brought their concerns to board of education meetings.

“For the two years that I was president, what I heard over and over again were concerns about our smallest schools,” he said.

That includes the district’s staffing formula, which calculates how many staff members each school should have using the number of students at that school. Kelly said the formula is “fairly complex” but takes into consideration factors such as school remoteness as well as student population.

The area that Kelly represents on the board of education includes some of the district’s smallest schools, including those in Nanwalek, Kachemak-Selo, Razdolna, Fox River and Port Graham, among others.

Port Graham School, which serves 27 students according to district enrollment data, was closed for four consecutive days earlier this month due to staff members being out with illness. Because staff were not available to open and operate the school building, students temporarily pivoted to remote learning until last week.

Leaders with the unions that represent district staff say the closure is symptomatic of a larger problem within KPBSD when it comes to having a pool of qualified staff to fill in when somebody calls out.

“I think the situation of Port Graham is kind of a good litmus test for what happens when you have staff absences in an outlying school,” said Kenai Peninsula Education Association President Nathan Erfurth. That group represents the district’s teachers and other certified staff.

Out of the school board’s small schools committee, Erfurth said he’d like to see clearer policies when it comes to staffing substitutes and a reevaluation of the staffing formula used by the district. Families may not realize how strained school staff are, he said, because they’re able to keep day-to-day operations going.

“Most people are dropping off their kids at school, or they’re sending them off on the bus and school seems to be fine and then they come home,” Erfurth said. “But there’s all kinds of patchwork coverage going on to try and keep these schools functioning, and a couple of them are reaching, like, a stress critical level.”

Susanna Litwiniak is the president of the Kenai Peninsula Educational Support Association, the union that represents the district’s support staff. She said that while the steps taken by district administrators and the board of education to boost KPBSD’s substitute pool have helped when it comes to certified staff, those benefits haven’t necessarily been extended to support staff.

“As far as support staff goes, there’s a serious shortage of food staff workers and custodians,” Litwiniak said. “There are not (substitutes) for those positions. In fact, we lost a head custodian in a central (peninsula) school because he was understaffed all year and he couldn’t find (substitutes). It was too stressful for him and he left.”

Litwiniak serves as the school secretary at the K-12 Moose Pass Elementary School, which serves 18 students. She said that they have one teacher, one aide and a part-time custodian in addition to herself. Their teacher has been out with a family emergency so a community parent became a substitute to fill the void.

“As far as having certified subs in these small communities, it’s very rare … and there doesn’t seem to be a plan for what to do in this type of a situation,” Litwiniak said.

She said she’d like to see the district develop a clearer plan for getting qualified people in the school building when someone calls out. Right now, she says the responsibilities of whoever calls out are usually redistributed to whoever is in the building.

KPBSD Assistant Superintendent Kari Dendurent said Friday that the challenges such as those experienced at Port Graham earlier this month are not necessarily linked to small schools, but rather rural schools. Particularly when it comes to a pool of substitutes available to stand in if a staff member calls out sick, Dendurent said that pool doesn’t usually exist for rural schools.

Like school districts across the country, KPBSD has experienced difficulty recruiting staff for both certified and support staff positions. Dendurent said the district already has trouble finding workers for schools on the road system, and that finding staff willing to relocate to the peninsula’s rural communities can compound the struggle.

Dendurent confirmed that the Port Graham school building was closed for four days due to staff shortages, but said remote learning was made available to students. According to KPBSD school enrollment data collected on Nov. 21, Port Graham School serves 27 students and has about five full-time staff members in the building. The school is also served by itinerant staff who also work in other remote schools.

Both Kelly and Dendurent say work targeted toward the district’s small and rural schools is underway.

KPBSD is updating KPBSD’s “Benchmark Staffing Formulas and Policies” report, Dendurent said, which was prepared in 2016 by Hanover Research. That report compared KPBSD to “geographically large” districts in five other states with similar enrollment distributions to gauge effective staffing strategies.

At the board of education level, Kelly said members spent time during a work session earlier this month talking about which schools should be considered a “small” school. At the board’s upcoming meeting in January, he said board members will more specifically flesh out what the charge of the committee should be.

“Stay tuned,” he said. “We will be developing the committee charge and then the work begins.”

Reach reporter Ashlyn O’Hara at