School district will bid for Alyeska

Posted: Wednesday, November 05, 2003

The Juneau School Board, on a 6-0 vote Tuesday, directed the school district to bid to take over the state correspondence school.

The state Department of Education is soliciting proposals from Alaska school districts to run Alyeska Central School starting in July. The deadline to submit proposals is Nov. 14.

The school, whose 26-person staff is in Juneau, now enrolls the equivalent of about 540 full-time, state-funded students, and it has about 250 students who pay tuition for one or two courses, staff has said.

Some staff and parents have asked Juneau and other school districts to bid to run Alyeska as a charter school. Charter schools are public schools that hire their own staff and set their own curriculum. Their budgets are approved by school boards, but cannot be set at an amount less than the state funding for charter-school students.

School Board President Mary Becker abstained from Tuesday's vote, saying it would be improper for her to vote because she has graded papers for Alyeska in the past.

Other School Board members didn't comment before the vote, except for Alan Schorr, who said he voted for the proposal only because the charter application would come back to the board for final approval if the state awards the bid to Juneau.

In an interview, Schorr said he was concerned about the district taking on Alyeska when the district faces a nearly $3 million budget deficit next school year, is trying to build a new high school, and still hasn't signed a contract with teachers for this school year.

"I think it's a financial crapshoot," Schorr said. "... Taking on this responsibility in fiscally trying times is really questionable."

The committee of Alyeska parents and staff that has applied for a charter has submitted a proposed budget that assumes the equivalent of 650 full-time students next school year. Its balanced budget of $2.167 million is paid for by the per-student state funding. The tuition program pays for itself.

But the Alyeska applicants, if Juneau wins the state offer, still must work out with the district and local school-employee unions where Alyeska staff would be placed on salary schedules, as well as issues such as tenure, seniority and transfer rights. Alyeska's 12-month schedule also would have to be reconciled with Juneau teachers' 182-day work year.

Juneau School District Superintendent Peggy Cowan has said she would expect Alyeska to live within its budget whatever its enrollment.

But Schorr said he was concerned that the program wouldn't be viable at some levels of enrollment.

And he said Juneau students still would be able to attend Alyeska if another school district takes it on.

Supporters have argued that the only way to be sure Alyeska's jobs stay in Juneau is for the Juneau School District to run the school.

School Board member Robert Van Slyke said in an interview that he favors the Alyeska charter application partly to keep the local jobs, and partly because Juneau students would benefit by having the option of taking Alyeska's courses.

"There would be no guarantee to the same access if the program is modified by another district," Van Slyke said.

Juneau resident Scott Linzmeier read a letter to the School Board from his 13-year-old daughter, Ione, an Alyeska student. She urged the board to bid for Alyeska, saying its courses are challenging and its teachers are encouraging. Ione said Alyeska was a good alternative to Juneau's regular middle schools.

Deanna Patz, a home-school parent, also spoke in support of Juneau bidding for Alyeska. Two of her daughters have graduated from the school, she said. Overcrowded schools in Juneau and filled classes at Juneau-Douglas High School led her to consider Alyeska, she said.

Alyeska is unique among the home-school programs offered by Alaska school districts because its certified teachers oversee the courses, which have daily lesson plans, Patz said.

Debbie Chalmers, an Alyeska teacher, said the charter applicants are pleased with the School Board's decision Tuesday.

"We're looking forward to working with the district and working out the details, keeping our children in school here, and providing options," she said.

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