Daily Sitka Sentinel

School Board hears Native Ed Requests

    The Sitka School Board held its annual meeting at the ANB Hall Tuesday night and heard a plea from members of the local Native community to support educational programs that help preserve Tlingit language and culture.    
    “They’re trying to save what little we have left,” said clan leader Herman Davis, who spoke during a presentation by officials from the Sitka Native Education Program, or SNEP.
    Davis asked the School Board to support SNEP.
    The School Board meeting was held just days after Nancy Douglas, who was in her second year as the school district’s cultural director, started a new job as the head of Sitka Tribe of Alaska’s Education Department.
    Douglas had increased the cultural offerings around the district’s schools and her position is now vacant.
    In a tough budget year, it is unlikely the district will replace Douglas, but Superintendent Steve Bradshaw said he wants develop a “memorandum of understanding” with STA to keep Douglas working in the schools.
    Bradshaw said he would recommend that the School Board continue financial support for cultural programs.
    “I encouraged Nancy to look at the position in the hopes we would be able to make better use of our finances,” Bradshaw said. “As far as working together with the tribe, it is my hope that we are able to maintain the cultural program at the level we have in the past and continue to grow it even more and that we do it in alignment with the tribe and SNEP.”
    The regularly scheduled School Board meeting Tuesday also included a discussion of the district’s bus service, which has come under public scrutiny in recent weeks.
    In the wake of charges that an 18-year-old Sitka High student allegedly sexually abused a student from Baranof Elementary School on a school bus, some parents have questioned why older students are allowed to ride a bus that primarily serves Baranof and Keet Gooshi Heen.
    There was no testimony from the public on the bus issue, though Board President Lon Garrison read a letter from Rick Armstrong, parent of an elementary school student.
    Armstrong said high school students should not be allowed to ride the bus with younger students and questioned why it took so long for the district to notify parents about the alleged sexual abuse.
    Both Garrison and Tom Conley said they had heard similar complaints from members of the public.
    The alleged perpetrator was arrested Feb. 14, and the incident started to gain widespread attention in Sitka after the charges were reported in the Sentinel on Feb. 24.
    Bradshaw began the discussion Tuesday by apologizing to the family of the victim. He said the alleged incident was about as bad anything that could happen, short of the death of a child.
    Bradshaw said the district could change its bus policy “if the community feels strongly enough about it.”
    As it stands, Sitka High and Blatchley Middle School students are allowed to ride an early bus that serves the elementary schools.
    SHS and BMS students use the bus to get to school early, typically to visit teachers during office hours or for other programs, like music instruction.
    Conley said it’s not uncommon in the rural west, and other parts of Alaska, for students of all ages to ride buses together.
    The district’s informal policy calls for older students to sit in the front of the bus, where they can be observed by the driver. In the case of the alleged abuse, the older student had been sitting in the rear of the bus.
    Bradshaw said Tuesday that “most of the (bus) drivers were doing the right thing.”
    There was little support on the School Board for prohibiting middle and high school students from riding the early bus.
    “I’m reticent to penalize students who try to get to school early,” Garrison said.
    He added that the district could improve its management of the buses and should “try that approach first.”
    “Things need to be cleaned up and tightened up,” Garrison said.
    In April, the School Board is expected to debate and vote on an updated version of the district’s bus policy.
    Bradshaw said the new “administrative regulation” would likely codify the rule that older students must sit in the front of a bus that has elementary school kids aboard.
    Island Bus Company first got the school district’s transportation contract in 1964. The company lost the contract for five years in the early part of last decade, but began providing the district’s buses again in 2007, said Trudy Prewitt, who owns the company with her husband Gene.
    Prewitt said the driver on the route where the alleged incident occurred has been switched to another route.
    She agreed with the board that future incidents could be avoided by making sure older students and younger students are separated on the buses.
    “I agree with what they’re saying as far as separating them,” Prewitt said. “We’ve done a good job of doing that since this all came up.”
    The incident was first reported to school officials Feb. 10, a Friday.
    On Feb. 14, that next Tuesday, the Sitka High student, Alexander Evans, was arrested. He remains held on $100,000 bail in the Sitka jail.
    Bradshaw said the earliest he could have notified parents was on Feb. 23, after police had interviewed most of the students who typically ride the route where the alleged incident occurred.
    Garrison said district officials would have reacted differently if there was a perceived threat to student safety.
Other Meeting Notes
    The School Board will meet Thursday night to begin discussing possible budget cuts to reduce a $1.3 million shortfall.
    During his budget report Tuesday, Dave Arp, the district’s finance director, informed the board that the Assembly had decided not to take up a proposal to float the district a loan of up to $500,000 (see story, this page), delaying action until a regularly scheduled meeting March 27.
    Arp attended the 6 p.m. Assembly meeting at Centennial Hall, then made his way to the ANB Hall to make his report.
    The School Board had hoped to get a decision from the Assembly before March 19, their final work session on the 2012-13 school budget.
    School officials said that meeting will likely be delayed until after a decision from the Assembly on the possible loan.
    The city loan would help the school district cover its budget gap, and perhaps help the School Board avoid teacher layoffs and program cuts.
     Garrison said he anticipated some “tense moments” as the budget negotiations between the Assembly and School Board heat up in the next few weeks and asked for “civility and decorum from the board that we may not often receive from the other body at times.”
Bradshaw Job
    Bradshaw told the Sentinel today that he has not been invited to interview for a superintendent’s job in Montana.
    Bradshaw, who was one of 20 applicants for the top job in the Helena School District, said he is now out of the running for that position.

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