Alaska Editorial: Closing rural schools to aid the state budget isn’t the best option

  • Tuesday, December 15, 2015 1:00am
  • Opinion

The following editorial first appeared in the Fairbanks Daily:

Schools are the heartbeat of many small communities. Take away a school, or easy access to a classroom, and you take away a community’s ability to grow. Residents who have school-age children or who want to have children will move away.

The withering of the community, with its school uprooted, will continue. With a school boarded up and people leaving, a feeling of unease will grow. Flight from town can become infectious. Those who do choose to stay will eventually succumb to the turning pages of the calendar, and the population will continue to wane.

It does happen.

Alaskans need only look beyond the urban centers of their state to understand the significance of a school to a community. The residents of Beaver, on the Yukon River almost due north of Fairbanks, worry their school will soon close because its official count was two students short of the 10-student minimum necessary to receive state funding.

The Yukon Flats School District opted to pay the $200,000 cost of keeping the Cruikshank School open for the remainder of the first semester, which ends this month, in the hope that the school can somehow meet the state requirement for at least 10 students. This isn’t a first for the Yukon Flats district, which over the years has had to close schools in Stevens Village, Central, Birch Creek, Livengood and Rampart.

The issue of rural schools, especially those off the road system, is a tough one for Alaska. The schools are small and the difficulties many: buildings must be maintained and, as does happen, replaced periodically at a high cost; teacher turnover is a constant problem; and cultural challenges are ever-present. Most of the rural schools are 100 percent state-funded because they exist in unincorporated areas that have no local property tax.

And yet these rural schools are so important to the viability of some communities, which is why there is legitimate concern about the possibility of a bill being introduced in the Legislature to raise the minimum number of students needed for a school to remain open. Rep. Lynn Gattis, Republican of Wasilla, has indicated she intends to author such a bill, perhaps raising the requirement to 20 to 25 students.

Such a move no doubt is being made because of the state’s severe budget problems, which Gov. Bill Walker this week proposed rectifying by imposing an income tax, raising the motor vehicle tax and other taxes, reconfiguring the Alaska Permanent Fund so it can supply some useable revenue, and making further spending cuts.

The remote rural schools are so much more expensive to construct and operate that every once in a while someone will quietly bring up the idea of scrapping the system of small rural schools altogether in favor of creating a system of large regional boarding schools. The idea is a highly charged one, carrying with it an urban vs. rural flavor and reminders of Alaska’s troubled past experience with such schools.

Recent news that the school in Rampart, on the Yukon River and about 50 miles upriver from Tanana, reopened earlier this year shows the power of the local classroom. The school had been closed for 15 years, with the community’s population at one point dwindling to 12.

“A school is what keeps a community alive,” says Floyd Green, the chief of the Rampart Village Council.

With the Rampart school closed, students and their families left the community to find schools elsewhere. Now, with the school reopened, Rampart lives anew.

The sustainability of rural schools such as those in Rampart, Beaver and elsewhere is an important subject, one that Alaskans will likely become more aware of as the fighting over fewer and fewer state dollars continues.

Tough times for the state budget call for tough decisions, certainly.

But Alaska must guard against making decisions that harm not only our future adults but also our present, uniquely Alaskan communities. Raising the minimum number of students needed for state funding of a rural school doesn’t seem to be in the state’s best interest.

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