Parents and teachers throughout Alaska are reminded frequently of the need to adapt to new ways of teaching and ever-changing curricula. Mostly, we’re told, it’s due to societal and cultural shifts in our country that must be addressed.
I wonder if the school boards and administrators promoting these changes have ever considered adapting to their reality – one of declining enrollments and under-utilized schools.
One need not look too far back in history to realize this isn’t new.
The closure of Capital School in downtown Juneau decades ago offers one example and demonstrates how such situations can ultimately benefit the community.
Capital School was an aging structure with declining enrollment and high per-pupil costs. After a long and contentious battle, its students were folded into other local elementary schools and the building eventually became offices for the Alaska Legislature. Similar transformations took place with the nearby Scottish Rite Temple, the Behrends House, and now the Assembly Building, all of which are essential components of Juneau’s Capitol Campus.
We learned then and should realize now that the health of our schools depends on the vitality of our economy and community demographics.
Recognition of this has now dawned on two major school districts in Alaska.
Fairbanks closed three elementary schools and eliminated 121 positions this year, largely because the district has lost 2,000 students.
The Anchorage School District recommended closing six elementary schools next year as it attempts to reconcile a projected $68 million budget shortfall and a continuing loss of students.
There are various reasons for why this is happening but school funding isn’t the primary one. ASD Superintendent Jharrett Bryantt specifically cited the declining community birthrate as one of the factors. ASD CFO Jim Anderson defended the cuts saying that it would also help the district increase efficiency and potentially make services more readily available to students.
State demographers note in a recent ADN article that Alaska’s population has been aging and Anchorage and Fairbanks’ populations have notably shrunk over the past decade.
In Juneau, the school district is once again facing a similar challenge. While a school board-sponsored economic report in February 2022 projected a decline of almost 1,200 students over the next 10 years, the school district has stubbornly refused to act. According to the report, “JSD enrollment declined in 14 of the last 17 years; the district now has 20% fewer students than in 2004. The enrollment decline has been driven by demographic factors – principally declining births.”
Juneau City Manager Rorie Watt, in an April 4, 2022 memo to the Juneau Assembly and the Juneau Board of Education, warned of negative demographic trends and aging school structures. He suggested that it was “appropriate to add potential school closure into the mix of the discussion of facility renovations.”
Watt noted that such discussions will be difficult (and no doubt emotional) but necessary, nonetheless.
To keep open a school with much higher average per-pupil costs hurts students through its drag on the district budget. It selfishly ties up resources that can be used to improve the quality of education for all students.
Some may find school closures disheartening, but they also provide an opportunity for the local government and school board members to examine an array of options. A phenomenon sweeping the country now is the re-purposing of government buildings into other uses.
While Juneau’s two high schools and some elementary schools are under-utilized, these discussions need not be limited to school buildings. One of Juneau’s three libraries and its city museum could also be examined for repurposing or more effective use of space.
As Juneau’s demographics change, state offices and employees continue to dwindle, and work-at-home policies become the norm, it’s imperative that we all begin to adapt to this new reality.
Better to get creative now to save these buildings for other uses before we’re forced to bulldoze them later.
Policy makers should realize that blaming school ills on lack of funding will not change the basic fact that fewer babies are being born and that local taxpayers and state revenues are not a bottomless piggy bank.
• After retiring as the senior vice president in charge of business banking for Key Bank in Alaska, Win Gruening became a regular Opinion Page columnist for the Juneau Empire. He was born and raised in Juneau and graduated from the U.S. Air Force Academy in 1970. He is involved in various local and statewide organizations.