Superintendents wary of small school shutdowns

When a school shuts down in rural Alaska, a community ceases to exist. Such a situation can be a school administrator’s nightmare, and in more than 25 districts across the state that nightmare could soon become reality.

A bill hasn’t been drafted, introduced or signed, but whispers in the Alaska Legislature to increase the minimum student count to be eligible for state funding was reason enough for the Alaska Superintendents Association (ASA) to take action. Currently rural schools must have at least 10 students.

ASA released a special resolution Oct. 1 explaining any such move by the Legislature would have a “significantly disparate impact on rural communities and Alaska Natives.”

Juneau School District Superintendent Mark Miller attended a September meeting of school administrators where the resolution was drafted. It will be presented to lawmakers during the next legislative session.

“They’re not talking about increases, if you know what I mean,” Miller said of lawmakers’ possible intentions with education funding. “Education right now has a big target on our backs because we’re a very expensive operation.”

That “target” is an especially heavy load for Lake and Peninsula Borough Schools Superintendent Ty Mase. According to 2014-15 enrollment figures, less than 25 students are enrolled in nine of the district’s 14 schools. The rumored new cutoff number for state funding is 25.

“For us, it would wipe out the entire Alaska Peninsula,” Mase said, adding that his district created its own resolution against legislative changes. It was based on this that ASA created its own.

Mase did not want to name specific legislators he believed could be behind such a change. In a letter from Mase to the Lake and Peninsula school board members, Mase wrote he believed State Sen. Mike Dunleavy, R-Wasilla, was working with others to raise the minimum to 25.

Dunleavy could not be reached by press time for comment. Mase said he isn’t waiting for a confirmation, by then it could be too late to create the necessary waves to knock the legislation down.

“It shouldn’t even be out there as a bargaining chip. We’re talking about kids and education and culture,” Mase said. “They’re trying to balance the educational budget on the backs of small, rural communities. It doesn’t seem fair.”

In Mase’s district, the nine schools that could close if minimum enrollment was changed to 25 would affect a student body made up of 76.7 percent Alaska Native students.

Just outside of Haines, Chatham Schools Superintendent Bernie Grieve said Mase isn’t the only one who’s heard this buzz. Except he’s also heard the number 50 thrown around, a number that would shut down half of Grieve’s district and completely wipe out even more.

“I’ve seen it happen where schools have had to close and a community can die out. It no longer exists,” Grieve said. “It’s the kids that ultimately suffer.”

At Klukwan School, where students go from pre-kindergarten to 12th grade, enrollment was 14, according to last year’s student report. Of those, 50 percent are Native Alaskan. If these students had to travel 20 miles south to Haines for their education, Grieves said it would be more than an inconvenience — it could be a danger.

“All it would take is one accident and you could wipe out the younger generation,” Grieves said. “All it would take is a major mudslide or rock slide. I don’t think the state takes a lot of that into account when they take these things into consideration.”

Lisa Parady, the Alaska Council of School Administrators executive director and ASA staff member, said school officials are aware the Legislature is facing unprecedented budget pressures, but legislators have to keep in mind the devastation such a change could create and what this means for school children’s constitutional rights.

“It’s too simple to say ‘let’s balance our budget on the backs of rural and Alaska Native students,’” Parady said. “The State does have a fundamental responsibility to educate every child, and so you have to provide something, which that something has to be adequate. So therein, I think, lies the question.”

For students affected by a school closure, home schooling isn’t always a viable option, Mase said, adding that he suspects students in his district would either work toward a GED or leave their families behind to attend boarding schools, tearing villages apart.

The ASA resolution addresses the possibility of the state falling back on correspondence programs, declaring that studies have not found these alternatives are “constitutionally sufficient or adequate.”

In larger cities such as Juneau, Fairbanks or within the Mat-Su Borough School District, changing the minimum to 50 could affect one or two smaller schools. The Alaska Department of Education and Early Development bases funding for juvenile residential centers such as the Johnson Youth Center on beds, 28, not an enrollment figure, which last year was eight.

While a few larger districts could lose a speciality school, 10 districts could have to plan for a future with half the resources. The ASA special resolution, Mase said, is a proactive measure to win the battle before the Legislature even steps into the ring.

“Our plan is our actions now will stop the idea now,” Mase said. “We don’t want to watch this go down without a fight.”

• Contact reporter Paula Ann Solis at 523-2272 or at paula.solis@juneauempire.com.

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