The state has awarded the Lower Kuskokwim School District $34,450,733 to add another school building in Eek, with the district chipping in $703,076. However, Eek is only one of several schools in the district needing new facilities. LKSD Superintendent Dan Walker explains why Eek got a new school and other villages, like Napakiak, didn’t.
Walker says that the school in Eek was built in the 1980s. Since then, the number of students has multiplied to the point where they are cramped for space. Walker says that’s the biggest reason the state funded a new school building for Eek.
“If your school is over capacity based on the square foot allowance per student, that garners you a lot of points in the application process,” Walker said. “The biggest factor is 'unhoused students.'”
Walker uses the term “unhoused students” to mean that the school is crowded, but there are places in the district where kids may literally not have a school very soon.
“You think of Napakiak. Even though the students aren’t unhoused yet, there is a potential for us to have to close that school,” Walker said.
Walker says that’s because the school in Napakiak is only a few hundred feet from the river. Last fall, the fuel tanks next to the school needed to be moved to avoid falling into the water. LKSD is preparing for the possibility that it may have to move students and teachers into temporary, mobile buildings this year.
“We’ve got Newtok and Napakiak that are seeing a lot more erosion due to the permafrost melting,” Walker said. “And that’s not going to go away. It’s only going to accelerate.”
Walker says that the state’s formula for deciding which schools get construction grants does not give much weight to the threat posed by erosion. In the state’s prioritized list this year, Eek was first and Napakiak was seventh. Eek received 56 points in its application for unhoused students, while Napakiak got 25 points for its “emergency.”
“And they’re both important, but I think the state is going to have to re-evaluate how they look at what I would term the ‘emergency’ situation, versus ‘unhoused,’” Walker said.
Walker says that the district isn’t going to wait for the state to change its grant criteria. Over the years, LKSD has gotten good at navigating the existing application process. Eek wasn’t number one on the state’s list a few years ago, but then LKSD ordered a design for the Eek school before it actually had the funding to build it.
“And that bumped it to number one,” Walker said. “When you are able to have a design in place, then it gets you quite a few extra points.”
The district is trying that strategy again. In December, LKSD’s school board voted to fund a design for Napakiak’s new school, hoping that will bump up the application on the state’s list for construction grants.
Despite issues with the application process, Walker calls securing funding for the Eek school a big win for the district. Construction is expected to begin this summer on the additional building. Students will then move into the new portion while the old part is being renovated, and then the two sections will be connected. Walker expects a January 2022 move-in date for the entire project.