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Moose Pass School faced school year start with staffing uncertainties

The K-8 rural Moose Pass School.
Riley Board
The K-8 rural Moose Pass School.

The school in Moose Pass finally has a principal, just over a week ahead of the start of the school year. The new principal was hired Monday, but staff are still working to find an instructional aid, a non-certified teaching assistant position.

Jennifer Boyle is the president of the Moose Pass School’s site council, and the parent of a fifth grader at the school.

“I honestly can’t imagine a situation where one teacher for 22 students at all different grade levels can successfully teach that many students what they should be learning at their grade level,” she said.

Boyle said the last principal resigned, and the district made a hire, but it didn’t pan out.

“I think my biggest concern was just the communication from KPBSD in regard to this situation arriving,” she said. “I found about it via social media posts from other parents on social media in Seward that there was no principal signed up for the year.”

Boyle posted about the vacancies in the Moose Pass Messenger, a local newsletter, over the weekend, calling on residents to write to district leaders about the impact unfiled roles could have on the school.

Then, on Monday, the district announced to parents that Doug Hayman, the current principal of the district’s homeschool program, Connections, would take over as principal. He previously served as Moose Pass principal when he oversaw three small rural schools and Tustumena Elementary in Kasilof.

In a letter to families, Hayman said that he travels through Moose Pass regularly on his way to Seward, which will allow him to provide in-person support to the school.

“Understanding that this was not the original plan for support of this great school, I will do everything I can to make sure Moose Pass students, families, and staff are able to continue to function and achieve the high standards of the community,” he wrote.

But the principal position isn’t the community’s only education woe. Moose Pass has previously had one full-time teacher and one instructional aide. Boyle said the aide who worked during the last school year moved away, and that role has been empty since.

She said the school has five incoming kindergartens, but some students are entering sixth grade. That leaves a wide range of material to cover, with some kids learning to read for the first time, and others learning to write multi-paragraph essays.

“When you have an aide, you can break it down so that there is two people for that many grade levels, to give personal instruction, to make sure students aren’t falling through the cracks,” she said.

School staff say it looks like the school may be able to find an aide in time, but nothing is finalized. The district’s staffing formula requires one teacher per 18.5 students at small schools like Moose Pass, although that’s just for elementary classes. Moose Pass is a K-8 school. The district is expecting an enrollment of 21 students at Moose Pass, and its preliminary budget for the next year includes an almost-full-time aide position.

Boyle said the last minute scramble, and general recruitment difficulty, is part of a larger issue with funding for Alaska schools.

“I can’t imagine how challenging it is right now to actually fill these roles,” she said. “The budget right now doesn’t allow for competitive recruitment for roles in our district.”

KPBSD lobbied the state legislature for an increase to the per-student state funding throughout the spring, after years of flat funding. The legislature passed a one-time funding boost that would have brought $11.7 million into the district. But in June, Gov. Mike Dunleavy vetoed half of that money, leaving districts to draw on savings and warn of identical challenges next year.

Boyle said the instructional aide position is listed for just $19 an hour, a difficult selling point in the small community with a comparatively high cost of living and little affordable housing.

And Moose Pass isn’t the only small school starting the year with staffing uncertainties. In an email to parents yesterday, the Cooper Landing School’s principal said the school is starting the year with one of its two teacher roles vacant, but that a temporary sub will teach K-3 students until the job is filled.

Riley Board is a Report For America participant and senior reporter at KDLL covering rural communities on the central Kenai Peninsula.
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