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KNBA News - Cost-saving move would close 60+ rural schools; Permit issued for oil drilling in NPRA

Oct. 23, 2015

Wasilla legislator proposes raising minimum student number from 10 to 25

By Jennifer Canfield, KTOO – Juneau

At least one state lawmaker wants to propose an education cost-savings measure that could close dozens of rural schools across the state.

It started as a rumor. Democratic lawmakers and some education advocates have heard about it. That there are new ideas for changing how the state pays for education isn't a surprise. That this proposal could close 60 schools across the state is.

"Certainly there has been talk that 10 students is, quite frankly - with the technology that we have today and the options that are available - it's just too expensive."

That's Republican Rep. Lynn Gattis of Wasilla. She chairs the House Education Committee and is considering introducing legislation to change a number of things about how schools in Alaska are funded.

One of her ideas is to increase the minimum threshold for schools to receive full funding. She's considering proposing 25 students as the minimum, but she's open to a number higher or lower than that.

"If I was in charge,” said Gattis, “I would open up those options whether it be virtual schools. I went to school when it was correspondence back in the day and we have come a long way.

Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tompkins represents a handful of Southeast Alaska communities. The three schools that were closed in Alaska in the last fiscal year were all in Southeast.

The Sitka Democrat said he unequivocally opposes raising the minimum threshold.

" Closing schools, depriving rural kids of a teacher and a traditional education that kids in cities and parents in cities would reasonably expect is not fair or equitable and it's a complete nonstarter," said Kreiss-Tompkins.

Hiking the threshold from 10 students to 25 could mean closure for 60 of Alaska's schools. Typically once a school goes below the threshold and loses most of its funding, the district is forced to close the school, unless it makes the rare decision to siphon funding from other schools it administers. But in this case, pushing funds around may not even be an option. Many of Alaska's smallest schools are in the same school districts.

The Southeast Island School District, for example, has nine schools; eight of them have fewer than 25 students. Superintendent Lauren Burch said his district used to have 20 schools.

"Even just talk about the possibility to go to 25 is enough to get parents jumpy. Just the talk will close a few schools because it's hard keeping enough kids there,” said Burch. “Who's going to move to a community when they think the might close (the school)?"

Burch said three of the district's schools lost funding a few years ago because enrollment fell under the threshold. He said the district cut spending on basic school supplies and maintenance for buildings and buses to help recover the loss.

Republican lawmakers say growth in education spending is unsustainable, and must be checked.

"I don't think it's fair just to say, 'That's the biggest number out there,' or 'Medicaid and education are big, so let's take it from there,’” said education commissioner Mike Hanley.

He thinks that if cuts to the state budget must be made, then education should be a priority to maintain. As an example, he questioned whether education funding was more important than funding for trail maintenance, or maybe as important as funding for law enforcement.

"At some point we have to say we're not willing to go any lower in education and I don't know what that number is but at some point we have to say, what's our constitutional responsibility to provide an education?” said Hanley. “What's our moral responsibility to supply and provide an education? And can we still meet that obligation with less money?”

Comments on a possible change in the minimum threshold were included in several speakers' remarks during the National Congress of American Indians conference with the Alaska Federation of Natives, and during the AFN convention. Concerns were mainly focused on how such a change would make rural education less equitable.


BLM okays oil drilling in National Petroleum Reserve - Alaska

by the Associated Press

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management has approved a drilling permit that it says will open the way for the first oil and gas production from federal land in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska. The permit is for the Greater Mooses Tooth 1 project being pursued by ConocoPhillips Alaska. In a release, the BLM Director says it was a collaborative effort to ensure responsible development in the arctic reserve that will provide a new source of oil for the trans-Alaska pipeline.


Pole stolen by actor John Barrymore returns to Alaska

By the Associated Press

A stolen totem pole that went from Hollywood garden decor to the basement of a Hawaii museum has been returned to Alaska tribal members. A University of Alaska Anchorage professor has long researched the object and says actor John Barrymore directed crew members of his yacht to take it from an unoccupied Alaska village in 1931. Museum officials returned the cedar pole today to seven Tlingit (KLINK'-it) tribal members.