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City of Napakiak clears way for LKSD to resume building foundation for new school

Katie Basile
Kids play on the outdoor basketball court next to the K-12 school that will begin being demolished this spring.

Another hurdle to building a replacement school in Napakiak, where the existing one is dangerously close to the eroding riverbank, has been cleared. A complicated land agreement allows the school district to resume construction on a foundation for the new school this summer.

In 2021, the Lower Kuskokwim School District began building the foundation for a new school in Napakiak. But in June, the district suddenly halted work. LKSD superintendent Kimberly Hankins said that the district ran into issues negotiating a land lease agreement with the Napakiak Corporation, which owned the land where the school would be built.

It’s been about six months since then, and those issues have been figured out. First, the Napakiak Corporation transferred the land where the new school will be built over to the City of Napakiak. The corporation’s attorney wrote in an email to KYUK that the land transfer happened because “schools are a public function that is better handled by the city, as the local public body, than a private corporation such as Napakiak Corporation.”

The City of Napakiak, who now owns the land, is allowing LKSD to use it for the new school. “The school district has an agreement with the corporation and the city saying, ‘Yes, you are ready to go, everything's in place to build a new school in the new subdivision,’” said Walter Nelson, managed retreat coordinator for the City of Napakiak.

The school will be built in a new subdivision in the village that will be the furthest point away from the river erosion.

LKSD Superintendent Kimberly Hankins said that some final paperwork still needs to be completed. But she said that work on the foundation for the new school will resume this summer.

The district does not have the money yet to build the new school beyond the foundation. The state has made it a top priority to fund a replacement school in Napakiak this year. To do that, the state legislature would have to allocate more than $50 million for the new school in the upcoming budget.

At the same time, the district will begin demolishing the existing school this summer. The building is dangerously close to the river, only 64 feet away. The district is demolishing the high school and junior high wings, which are closest to the river erosion, and leaving the rest of the building.

An Alaska Department of Education official said that he thinks the new school can be finished before all the students have to leave the old one. Hankins isn’t as certain.

“I'm really hopeful,” Hankins said. “But I think the erosion is so unpredictable. You know, if you went back in time and looked at erosion models over the last 10,15 years, you know, some certainly didn't put the erosion where it's at today. So I think it's hard for me to say for sure that that will be the case.”

If the new school can’t be finished in time, students and staff will move into portable units that the district is planning to barge to Napakiak this summer. Some students are currently in portable units that were already there.

Over on the coast, Newtok needs a school built in the new community of Mertarvik. Hankins said that the district will begin design work for that school this spring.

Greg Kim is a news reporter for KYUK covering environment, health, education, public safety, culture and subsistence. He's covered everything from Newtok's relocation due to climate change-fueled erosion to the Bethel chicken massacre of 2020.
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