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Napakiak is number one priority in state's list of school construction projects

Gabby Hiestand Salgado
An aerial view of Napakiak, Alaska and the eroding Kuskokwim shoreline on September 22, 2021.

Napakiak is at the top of the state’s list for a new school building. That’s as of Dec. 21, 2021, when the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development released its Capital Improvement Project Grant Priority List for Fiscal Year 2023, a list of which communities are most in need of a new school. Napakiak was fourth on that list a year ago, but Napakiak’s existing school is within 64 feet of an eroding riverbank.

Napakiak made the jump largely thanks to the state legislature, according to Tim Mearig, facilities manager for the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development. He said that when the legislature approved $3.1 million in September 2021 to demolish the existing K-12 school in Napakiak, that helped bump Napakiak’s replacement school project to the top of the list. That’s because once the state makes an initial investment on a school construction project, that project receives higher priority for future funding.

Mearig said that the entire situation with Napakiak, with the rapidly eroding riverbank and the public’s concern over whether the community would lose its school, drove the Alaska Department of Education to reconsider how it evaluates impending disasters. In the past, the state’s scoring system did not consider whether students were about to lose their school. That is no longer the case.

“The situation in Napakiak drove a scoring change,” Mearig said.

But just because Napakiak is now number one on the state’s priority list to receive a new school does not mean that it will actually get the funding to build one.

“Of course, that's completely up to the legislature,” Mearig said. “But it's a positive sign that the governor's budget includes an avenue to fund that.”

Last month, Gov. Mike Dunleavy proposed a budget for the 2023 fiscal year that includes $55 million to build a new school in Napakiak. But he’ll need buy-in from the legislature. And in the previous year’s budget, the state allocated $0 for building new schools.

Napakiak’s school is within 64 feet of the eroding river bank, and that amount of land can disappear in a single storm. Mearig said that if the legislature approves funding this year to build a new school in Napakiak, then the worst case scenario for students in the village can be prevented.

“That project can be completed in time to move the kids into that new school before the other school is [sic] unoccupiable,” Mearig said.

That goal relies on a delicate timeline even if the funding comes through. The Lower Kuskokwim School District is planning to demolish just the high school and junior high wings of the existing school in Napakiak this spring. Superintendent Kimberly Hankins said that would create an additional 85 feet of buffer between the river and the remaining portion of the school.

“The thought is to remove that portion and extend the lifespan of the remainder of the building for an additional, at least one, hopefully two years,” Hankins said.

During this, the high school and junior high students will learn in portable classrooms. Some are already in them. If the river reaches what’s left of the school before a new one is completed, the rest of the students will join them.

Complicating matters, the school district was still negotiating a lease agreement with the Napakiak Corporation for use of the land where the new school is set to be located as of late last year.

The state’s priority list for school construction projects includes two other LKSD communities in the top three. Newtok’s replacement school in the newly built village of Mertarvik is second on the list. Students there are currently learning in the community’s evacuation center. And Nunapitchuk is third on the list. The school building there is old and in poor condition, and is too small for the number of students.

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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