The Alaska State Board of Education and Early Development at its meeting Wednesday in Juneau. (Claire Stremple/Alaska Beacon)

The Alaska State Board of Education and Early Development at its meeting Wednesday in Juneau. (Claire Stremple/Alaska Beacon)

Alaska’s education board sends a $500M wish list for construction and maintenance to lawmakers

The state’s Board of Education and Early Development approved a priority list for half a billion dollars in construction and upkeep for schools at its regularly scheduled meeting in Juneau on Wednesday.

The list will go to the governor and the Legislature to be considered for funding.

Typically, only projects from among the top 10 funding requests are granted. This year the governor’s proposed budget includes funding for only the No. 1 school construction priority and top two maintenance projects, totaling less than $9 million.

The construction priority is $4 million towards a project to relocate and replace the Newtok K-12 school. The school was partially destroyed in a fire last year and was threatened by erosion from the Ninglick River.

Major maintenance would include a nearly $4 million rehabilitation at the elementary and middle schools in Craig and nearly $300,000 copper pipe replacement project in the Allakaket School.

State School Finance and Facilities Manager Lori Weed said that in the last 10 years, due to fiscal constraints, the state has funded fewer projects for school construction and maintenance projects. Between the fiscal years from 2015 to 2025, the state has funded anywhere from roughly 1-35% of the grant requests.

Board member Bob Griffin said he questioned the sustainability of the high costs of maintenance and construction projects. “I think we’re robbing resources from classroom operations when we spend too much money on facilities,” he said. He pointed to Alaska’s “pretty flat” economy.

“I just, in my mind, cannot visualize how we can endure these cost escalations that are pretty significantly exceeding the normal background and inflation factors,” he said.

Education Commissioner Deena Bishop said his concerns pointed to larger structural questions. “The bigger question is — and it’s come up many times about schools in Alaska: What do we fund?”

She suggested the board put that question to legislators, and agreed that the costs for some projects seemed unsustainably high. Griffin asked board members to pull out calculators at one point to get the cost per square foot of one proposal — it was $2,600.

The board voted 8-2 in favor of adopting the list, though three of the yes votes — including two student members and a military member — were advisory. Members Lorri Van Diest and Griffin voted against it.

There was also a bittersweet moment when the board said goodbye to Jeffrey Erickson, who represents the area that includes the North Slope and Northwest Arctic boroughs, as well as the Nome Census Area.

Erickson said that he and his wife are moving to Wasilla to be closer to five children and nine grandchildren. He said he doesn’t want to leave the role, but feels the rural seat should be held by someone who lives in a rural community.

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