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Education

Napakiak Setting Up Temporary Classrooms As River Expected To Reach School

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Katie Basile
/
KYUK

The Lower Kuskokwim School District is preparing for the possibility that one of its schools could be partially underwater within a year. It doesn’t expect to receive the money to build a new school and demolish the existing one before that occurs, so the school district is coming up with alternative solutions to keep students in classrooms.

In the Napakiak school, classrooms nearest to the river sit empty. The furniture and materials have been moved to temporary classrooms set up in a teacher housing unit and the old preschool. 

Lower Kuskokwim School District Superintendent Kimberly Hankins said that the district is preparing for the possibility that students in Napakiak won’t have a real school building this year.

“We do anticipate being out of the existing building well in advance of a new facility being built,” Hankins said.

The eroding riverbank in Napakiak will likely reach the school’s foundation within a year. More than a dozen feet of the riverbank in front of the school fell into the water in June. The Napakiak school sits 78 feet from the water, about the same amount that erodes each year, according to recent studies. 

LKSD plans to build a new school further back from the eroding riverbank. The funding is expected to come from the state, but is likely several years away from being awarded. To speed up the process, LKSD began to build the foundation for a new school this summer with its own money. The district expects to be reimbursed by the state later on.

But on June 18, work on the new foundation stopped. Hankins said that the district had been working on the project for about a month.

“The whole area had been cleared, and then they had started taking off sort of the top layer,” Hankins said.

The school district ran into issues negotiating a land lease agreement with the Napakiak Corporation, which owns the land where the new school would be built. Hankins said that she could not say what those issues were.

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Credit Katie Basile / KYUK
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KYUK
The Lower Kuskokwim School District began construction on the foundation of a new school in Napakiak, but had to stop work on it earlier this summer. July 23, 2021 in Napakiak, Alaska.

The Napakiak Corporation’s attorney also declined to comment. Hankins said that she was unsure if work on the foundation would resume this summer. But Hankins and the district have other concerns in Napakiak on top of building a new school. 

“Unless by some miracle the river changes course, the school will need to be taken down,” Hankins said.

With the river so close to the school, the building needs to be demolished to avoid the environmental hazard of it falling into the water. But the school district doesn’t have the funds to begin the project. 

 

Tim Mearig used to work for LKSD. He’s now the facilities manager for the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development. Mearig said that state funding to demolish the existing school would come at the same time as funding for a new school building, and he said that it will likely be at least three years before Napakiak receives that grant.

“You're saying, ‘River’s "x" feet away, it's eroding. Can't people see that this is a need? And why doesn't the state step in and do something?’" Mearig said. "But the challenge for this project, and many projects, because we've got a long list of capital needs in the state, is resources."

Napakiak is currently fourth on the state’s prioritized list of school construction projects. And the state legislature typically only funds one major school construction project per year. Mearig acknowledged that the need for funding in Napakiak is urgent, but he said that all of the schools in the top 10 of the state’s prioritized list are in dire condition.

“The projects that have scored at a higher level than Napakiak, they have, number one, unsafe and crummy buildings. Number two, they’re highly over capacity,” Mearig said.

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Credit Katie Basile / KYUK
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KYUK
Managed Retreat Coordinator Walter Nelson tracks the moving shoreline on a dry erase board in his office. The Napakiak school is currently 78 feet from the Kuskokwim River. July 23, 2021 in Napakiak, Alaska.

Mearig said that the other reason why Napakiak isn’t number one on the state’s priority list is because Napakiak’s school is not yet under water. He said that if the erosion reached the school and put students in makeshift classrooms, then it would likely shoot Napakiak to the top. But even then, that would mean students in Napakiak would be without a school for several years before a new one could be built. 

In addition to converting teacher housing into classrooms, LKSD is also planning to ship portable units from Bethel to Napakiak if and when the school is no longer safe to use.

 

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