Proposed increase to minimum enrollment threatens funding for dozens of small schools

Alaska schools need at least ten students to qualify for state funding. In recent months, rural superintendents have been troubled by rumors that lawmakers might seek to raise to raise the minimum enrollment in their efforts to trim state spending. Now, as at least one state representative says she will propose that legislation, rural Alaska schools and communities are beginning to push back.

CREDIT VILLAGE OF IGIUGIG
CREDIT VILLAGE OF IGIUGIG

Since 1998, 10 students has been the minimum size an Alaskan public school needs to qualify for state funding. This week Rep. Lynn Gattis, a Wasilla Republican, said she plans to introduce a bill that would double that number.

“Ten kids in a school is not a lot of kids, and there’s a huge cost attributed to that,” said Gattis. “I have started legislation that looks at raising [enrollment] from 10 to 20.”

According to the state’s Department of Education, there are around 60 small schools in Alaska that would lose state funding if the required minimum count jumped to 20.

Gattis claims the adjustment would save the state at least $7 million dollars – less than one percent of the state’s $1.2 billion dollar education budget.

That may not sound like much, but Gattis and many of her colleagues say everything should be on the table as the state wrestles with a multi-billion dollar revenue gap.

“I’m on the record and I believe strongly that we should be looking at every aspect of every expenditure we do in the state,” said Sen. Mike Dunleavy, R-Wasilla. “That includes education, that includes school size.”

But cutting funding to small schools will meet with opposition from rural lawmakers, like Rep. Bryce Edgmon, D-Dillingham. He argues that his urban counterparts aren’t aware of what is at stake when small schools close.

“When schools go away, sometimes small communities go away,” said Edgmon. “I think it’s just bad public policy. I think it’s symptomatic of legislators wanting to cut things that don’t really impact their backyards.”

Others are beginning to mount the opposition to raising the minimum enrollment. The Alaska Federation of Natives passed a resolution against it, saying it would disproportionately affect Alaska Native and other minority students. The Alaska Superintendents Association and the state’s Department of Education also oppose.

Using social media, a new grassroots Facebook campaign aims to show state lawmakers what small schools across Alaska look like. The “Small Schools Matter” movement began a week ago in Twin Hills and has already collected close to 2000 page “likes” to help spread photos and testimony from rural schools and students.

A campaign started by a Twin Hills teacher is asking for photos and reactions from students at small schools throughout the state. CREDIT SMALL SCHOOLS MATTER FACEBOOK PAGE
A campaign started by a Twin Hills teacher is asking for photos and reactions from students at small schools throughout the state.
CREDIT SMALL SCHOOLS MATTER FACEBOOK PAGE

That rallying cry originated in the Southwest Region School District, which has closed two schools in the past decade due to dwindling enrollment.

“Portage Creek in 2006, and Clark’s Point in 2012,” said Superintendent David Piazza. “With Portage Creek, that community’s gone. Clark’s Point I think has been able to hang on a little bit. But when we close a school, other family members have to move to try to find education for the students that are left. That puts a big burden on those families.”

If the threshold was raised to 20, two more of SWRSD’s K-8 schools would face a loss of funding – in the villages of Twin Hills and Ekwok. A third in Aleknagik hovers just above a count of 25.

It’s a similar story in neighboring districts. Lake and Peninsula Borough Schools closed Egegik this year, and a 20-student threshold could see nearly all of the district’s remaining nine schools closed. Superintendent Ty Mase has invited Gattis and other lawmakers to visit the Igiugig School, which has 17 students currently enrolled, before the next legislative session.

Farther south, the Aleutians East Borough this year shuttered the school in Cold Bay, and False Pass could be next if the minimum is increased. Schools in upwards of 30 districts across the state would face similar state funding cuts and the likely closures that follow.

Edgmon said an increased minimum enrollment would be a “death knell” for far too many communities.

“If you’re looking to save $6 million dollars, there are other ways to do it without shutting schools down, putting students and parents and communities out in the cold,” he said.

The Constitution mandates the state provide education for “all children of the state,” but how to accomplish that in these lean times will be a subject of much debate. While the Bush caucus will fight to keep schools open in villages, others will argue that technology-enabled distance learning or regional boarding schools may be the answer. Rep. Gattis wants to take the fate of villages out of the equation when discussing school funding.

“I wanted to be sure we recognize that schools are supposed to educate our kids,” said Gattis. “If a small town loses their school they shouldn’t lose their town. Otherwise there’s a bigger concern – and truly that is a lack of economy.”