Concerns over school count draw community comments

By ANDREW CREMATA
The Skagway City School Board held a community forum on Nov. 14, and those present were encouraged to offer input for tackling important issues facing the school and its students.
The most pressing issue dealt with the student count and how to overcome a $137,000 budgetary shortfall caused by its falling below predicted levels. The district had budgeted for 105 students, but the final count from early this fall is closer to 98.75.
“It is a big problem and a huge issue,” said Superintendent Michael Dickens in regards to the student count problem. Dickens outlined a plan to those in attendance that included presenting legislation to the state that would try to alter the formula currently used when determining the amount of funds that are appropriated to schools based on their student count.
If, by April, the state was unresponsive to the legislation, Dickens said the school could ask the city for money from its Timber Reserve Fund, which, he believes, currently totals more than $700,000. Dickens said he had originally hoped that those monies could be used to reestablish a music program at the school.
If both measures were to fail, Dickens said, “We would be in a predicament.”
City Manager Bob Ward confirmed that the Timber Reserve Fund money did exist, and that it had been considered by some on City Council as a “rainy day fund.” He could not, however, confirm the exact amount in the account.
With the school facing inadequate enrollment in the coming years, and a large graduating class in 2008 that will make the numbers even lower, Dickens said that the issue was one that would have to be addressed fundamentally.
Dickens then asked for input on how to increase enrollment at the school. Ideas included more enrollment of foreign exchange students, encouraging parents to become foster parents, and hiring personnel with large families from outside the community in the hopes that their children would bring up the count numbers.
The foster parent idea drew the most discussion from the audience. Amy Labesky said that a foster child’s special needs would mandate the necessity for a counselor, and because there was no longer one in Skagway, it could be a problem for those seeking to become foster parents.
Dickens said that a grant application had already been sent out that would provide funding for a local counselor who would live in Skagway and spend time on site at both the Dahl Memorial Clinic and the school.
Regarding the concept of hiring staff and faculty with large families, Dickens cited an example in Southeast Alaska where a school facing similar count issues hired a teacher with a large family, and solved the problem.
Regarding such a teacher being hired in Skagway, Becky Jensen said, “They could have 10 kids, but they can’t be home-schooled.”
Jensen estimated that between 20 and 25 school-age children are currently home-schooled in Skagway. Dickens added that many of these families were home-schooling their kids before they ever moved to town.
Another issue addressed was that of community service. Dickens said that colleges were looking at whether students were involved in charitable community events. Involvement or the lack thereof, in such activities, could have an effect on both students applying for scholarships and their ultimate acceptance into the school of their choice.
“It is a new, up-and-coming concept,” said Dickens, and added that it was becoming a focus for those comparing applications from students across the country.
The discussion then focused on whether this type of activity should be incorporated into the current school curriculum.
History teacher Josh Coughran said he thought it would be the appropriate thing to do, and that it should be built into the school day starting when students are freshmen.
Dickens said that it could be include in the “life-skills” portion of the curriculum, but was concerned that if it were a requirement, it could become just another “hoop” for kids to jump through in order to graduate.
Board member Joanne Korsmo said, “The goal is building a sense of community, and not jumping through a hoop.”
Member Julene Fairbanks said that kids in California and Florida fulfilled community service obligations at their local libraries during the summer months.
Student Body President C.C. Hahn said it could be difficult tracking community service efforts if they were not conducted through the school.
School Board member Darren Belisle said that he would like to see student involvement in Skagway’s Volunteer Fire Department, in the hopes that if they move away they could be involved in similar endeavors in other communities.
The final issue dealt with the prioritization of programs and drew little response from the gathering. Still, with budgetary problems looming, questions were posed about the future of various school programs and whether they will be sustainable in the coming years.
While many of those answers remain difficult to answer, Dickens said they will take shape over the next year and reassured the crowd by saying, “We’re perfectly O.K.”