Tenakee Residents Search For Way To Reopen School

Tenakee School students head out in the field with Forest Service biologists in 2011. The school’s closure in 2013 means the loss of six jobs, including hot lunch cooks, maintenance, custodial, and two teacher’s aides. (SCS photo/Scott Harris)
Tenakee School students head out in the field with Forest Service biologists in 2011. The school’s closure in 2013 means the loss of six jobs, including hot lunch cooks, maintenance, custodial, and two teacher’s aides. (SCS photo/Scott Harris)

The Tenakee School has been closed for this year, but residents of the Chichagof Island community hope to turn things around for the next.

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With only three local students enrolled, the Chatham School board voted last week (8-6-13) for closure — but that closure is temporary for now. The district will maintain the building and other school assets for the next 9 months. Tenakee residents, meanwhile, will be looking for a solution.

The Chatham School Board’s vote on August 6 was a bullet that Tenakee has dodged before. Two times in the last 27 years, the school’s enrollment has dropped below ten, and the board decided to keep the school open.

This year Tenakee could muster three resident students, and two foreign exchange students. Gordon Chew chairs Tenakee’s advisory school board. It developed a nine-page plan to operate the school at a bare bones level. But Chew says it was probably “too little too late” to avert closure.

“The thing that hurts us the most is that we came up with a reduced budget, basically laying everybody off but the teacher — with all kinds of volunteers. And there was some money in the district’s reserve fund, but they decided to use it for a roof for a building in Angoon.”

Scott Butterfield is the superintendent of the Chatham School District. He says student enrollment is down districtwide, and state funding is dropping as a result. He says the money wasn’t there to keep Tenakee open with less than ten students.

“Our unrestricted fund balance is not such that, even on a reduced basis, we would have much of any unrestricted balance left if we kept the school open for one year. And if we had an emergency of some kind we would have nothing to use monetarily to resolve that emergency. So they just didn’t feel fiscally that it was a wise decision to use all their unrestricted fund balance for one year to keep the school open.”

The Tenakee School’s budget is about $270,000 a year. The painful thing for the district, according to Butterfield, is that closing the school doesn’t really represent a significant savings.

“This is tough financially, even with the school closed. We have a tenured teacher that works in Tenakee. We are obligated, contractually, to employ that teacher somewhere. So we’ve got that cost to cover, plus fringe benefits. We’ve probably got to hire somebody to work one hour a day, five days a week to check the building and make sure it’s secure, and nothing has happened. We still have to maintain minimal heat. Those costs are going to add up.”

To something on the order of $120,000.

The tenured teacher, by the way, is Gordon Chew’s wife, Anne Connelley.

Butterfield says the district is going to keep everything in the school — all the supplies, electronics, and other equipment. If more than ten students have filed an “intent to enroll” by next spring, the school will reopen the following autumn.

In spite of the close calls in the past, Tenakee has managed to deliver a good education for its students.

“As small as they are they have outstanding academic achievement. They’ve always made AYP (Adequate Yearly Progress). And even now when you go to the five-star rating system that the state uses under its No Child Left Behind waiver, Tenakee scored a five-star rating. That’s as high as it gets. Not many schools do that. So in that respect having to close the school is sad.”

Ten students is an important bar for rural schools, because that’s where a multiplier kicks in the state funding formula. In a nutshell, 10 students are the financial equivalent of 39 students. That’s why dropping below 10 becomes so treacherous.

Tenakee has three kids enrolled for next year who will have to make other plans. The are four other students in Tenakee who have opted for home schooling, and chose not to enroll. Additionally, there were two foreign exchange students planning to enroll. That still adds up to only nine.

The Chatham School board discounted Tenakee’s plans to have exchange students, saying the funding priority should be on residents. Gordon Chew believes Tenakee is on the right side of state statute by boosting enrollment through exchange students, but his board does not want to split hairs over that issue.

Instead, the focus now again is on community — and what that means. Tenakee has a significant number of vacation homes — only about one house in ten is a year round resident, Chew says. But there are still compelling reasons to have a school.

“It is a very different mix, and yet there are many people — retired professors for example — who believe in education who believe that a town is not a village without children. And we’re very worried about our families that aren’t capable of homeschooling, or aren’t interested in homeschooling. This decision happened a couple of days ago, and they’re all trying to decide what to do. To move or not, which will complicate any possible reopening issues in spring.”

If the Tenakee School remains closed for 24 months, Chew says the $4-million dollar building — which occupies city land — may revert to city ownership. That is not an attractive prospect, given the expense of basic maintenance.

Chew says the goal now is to get to ten.

“We’ve been in this position before, and the impressive thing is that with our outreach to bring families here, and to increase our employment base, and to increase our student count — has largely been successful over the last eight years that I’ve been on the board. We’ve kept the school open, against all odds.”

Tenakee has made successful recruitment efforts in the past — a fire chief and his two kids, for example — based on the lifestyle the town offers. He says, “Creative problem-solving is where we’re at right now.”