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Alaska’s rural schools languish on capital improvement lists and an increase in Base Student Allocation won’t help

From the outside, severe ice damming, roof damage, and a bulging wall are signs that the Sleetmute school is facing a very real threat of potential collapse. The problems began as a roof leak over a decade ago. The school district has never been successful in its efforts to seek funding to make repairs.
Emily Schwing
From the outside, severe ice damming, roof damage, and a bulging wall are signs that the Sleetmute school is facing a very real threat of potential collapse. The problems began as a roof leak over a decade ago. The school district has never been successful in its efforts to seek funding to make repairs.

Earlier this month, public school administrators traveled to Juneau to lobby for money that would pay for roof repairs, failing electrical systems, and serious structural problems. Madeline Aguillard is the superintendent of the Kuspuk School district, which includes seven schools on the upper Kuskokwim River.

“We don't have things such as advanced foreign languages, music, a library,” Aguillard told Senate Finance Committee members. “We actually built a school without a library because we know we can’t staff it. We can’t afford it. When we’re talking about making cuts, we’re talking about cutting kindergarten teachers, third grade teachers, core academic teachers. We’re not talking about cutting band and fun things. That’s the reality.”

Aguillard’s district includes Sleetmute, where the school is at risk of a catastrophic structural failure. In addition to problems in Sleetmute, two other schools in the rural district have signs of water damage, moldy walls, and serious electrical, heating, and ventilation problems. And this situation isn’t unique to the Kuspuk School District.

Terri Walker also testified before the Senate Finance Committee. She oversees more than a dozen schools in the Northwest Arctic Borough School District. “You know, we’ve got a school right now that in the 20-below west winds, it can’t get above 50 degrees. So the kids have to move into the gym to hold classes,” she said. “Several of our schools have outdated heating controls, outdated fire panels, and our teacher housing – gotta watch where you walk because your foot’s gonna fall through the floor if you walk in a certain area. In our schools, the floors are stapled down.”

“I would say that we're really in a state of need,” said Alaska Department of Education and Early Development (DEED) Commissioner Deena Bishop in a March 6 interview. “I don't think presently our system for capital investment into our schools is where it needs to be. And by far rural Alaska, to me, exponentially outsurpasses the needs in urban areas.”

In a lot of rural communities, there’s not a sufficient tax base to fund school construction. Districts can apply for state funding through DEED’s Capital Improvement Program. There’s a months-long scoring process to rank applications. Two lists, one for construction and one for major maintenance projects, are released each January. The number of projects that get funded depends on how much money legislators decide to put into the program each year. Sleetmute’s school has been on the major maintenance list for over a decade.

“Obviously, with so many needs out there, it's really not working,” Bishop said.

Bishop said that Alaska used to be flush with cash. Revenue from oil production helped fund education statewide, but Bishop said that those days are long gone. “We have to get together as communities, as tribal organizations, as school districts, and really understand when our state system supports small schools, upwards of like only 10 kids in a school, that is honoring a community. But at the same token, it's unsustainable to have $50 million go to 10 students,” she said. “I mean, think about the unsustainability of that in the long run, especially since the revenue isn't there.”

Bishop said that with fewer revenue dollars coming to the state, Alaska needs to get creative about coordinating across agencies. She offered an example: if the Alaska Department of Transportation has a village project for a road or a runway, can DEED take advantage of the equipment they might have available for work at a school? “If you're there for one thing and, you know, getting supplies and contractors there, could we think, you know, just more efficiently?” she asked.

Even so, Bishop said, ultimately her department can’t fund every project on its capital improvement list. “The levers that I can pull aren't levers for funding. I don't create the money. The legislature creates that,” she said. “ But we can certainly support policy that would help, in the long run, really support schools as their needs come up.”

Bishop didn’t offer specific recommendations for a shift in policy. She said that those conversations should happen at the community level. “It's not just a school issue. So how is it that we can have the stakeholders who are most impacted, the people who live in these areas, as well as tribal organizations, whether they're incorporated or not, government entities, to sit down and really think smartly about what we have now isn't doable? How do we want to make it better?” she said.

Rep. CJ McCormick (D-Bethel) does have ideas for how to change policy. “What really would solve the problem is a dedicated fund separate from the rest of the state,” said McCormick, who represents a large portion of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta. He frames school conditions in rural Alaska as an equity issue. “There's a lot of different factors that go into school funding,” he said, “and I think, to really allocate the resources necessary, it needs to kind of be put to its own test with metrics that are more germane to Bush Alaska.”

Without that kind of shift in policy, McCormick said that kids in rural Alaska aren’t getting a safe, healthy, and quality public education. “I get asked all the time as a representative, ‘What kind of changes do you need to make to your district for economic development?’ And I'm like, ‘Fund education.’ We have brilliant people. And I really strongly believe with adequately-funded education in our districts, Bush Alaska would be a force to be reckoned with,” he said.

As the debate about the financial sustainability of Alaska’s rural schools continues in the state capital, hundreds of kids off the road system will keep going to school in deteriorating buildings because, for now, there is no alternative.

Emily Schwing is a long-time Alaska-based reporter.
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