Potential legislation could close small schools in Diomede, Nome, and other western communities

to receive state funding, Alaska schools must have a minimum of 10 students. At least, that’s the rule right now. But some lawmakers are looking at raising the number to 20 students — or even 25 — in an effort to slash state spending. If passed, the legislation could close around 60 schools statewide, including several in western Alaska.

On the chopping block are small schools in Nome, Bethel, Kaltag, and Koyukuk. But perhaps the biggest impact would come in Diomede, where Principal Pamala Potter said the school plays several critical roles in the small island community.

“It is the center of the community,” said Potter. “We always have power and we always have heat. And sometimes, for whatever reason, the community doesn’t. We’re the safe place. We’re the haven.”

Once — when helicopter service stalled for six weeks and the island went without food deliveries — Potter said people turned to the school for three meals a day. Another time — when the generators gave out — the school provided everyone with a safe place to sleep. First and foremost, though, Potter said the Diomede School is all about: “The excitement of our children learning!”

“And not only academic knowledge — reading, writing, arithmetic — but their culture,” Potter said. “On Wednesdays, we have our Eskimo dancing. We do beading Friday nights. We have elders come in and speak with the kids. So it’s that safe place academically. It’s a safe place emotionally. It’s the whole world.”

But with just 19 students, the Diomede School is in danger. If lawmakers raised minimum enrollment to 20 or 25, the school would lose state funding. And without that support, Superintendent Bobby Bolen said the Bering Strait School District would face a tough decision: stretch their resources to keep the school running, or shut it down.

Districts statewide would have to make the same choice for all schools falling below the benchmark. But Bolen said losing schools — and the services they provide — would hit rural communities especially hard. In Diomede, for instance, he said a school shutdown could force many families to move to the mainland. And if enough families go, so might the entire island community.

BSSD passed a resolution against the potential legislation at a school board meeting last week, but Bolen said that’s not always enough to make rural voices heard. 

“Unfortunately, the urban, road-system schools and districts tend to dictate what happens in many of the rural communities,” said Bolen. “It’s one of those things where we can lobby and pass resolutions, but we get put on the back burner a little bit. We’re kind of at the mercy of the legislature.”

Rep. Neal Foster is a Democrat from Nome, and he represents several western Alaska communities in the state legislature. He said the potential legislation could shave almost $6 million from the state budget, but that’s not much in the grand scheme of things. In fact, Foster said the savings would represent less than one-tenth of one percent of Alaska’s entire budget.

Given the state deficit and slumping oil prices, though, Foster said he knows some cuts are inevitable — and that legislators will have to start somewhere. Even so, he said he would propose uniform, across-the-board cuts for all state departments rather than target education, which he calls a “core function of government.”

“This is an constitutional mandate,” said Foster. “There are a lot of things out there that we want, and then there are a lot of things that we need. And education is a need. If you have to rank things, education has got to be at the top.”

Some have proposed distance learning and home schooling as alternatives. But Bolen said those aren’t viable options for many rural communities, where internet service can be unreliable and supplies can be difficult and expensive to ship. Rep. Foster added that those alternatives also raise the issue of fair treatment.

“The question of equality comes up,” said Foster. “Are you providing the same level of education for people in rural areas as you are in other areas?”

And with many small schools incorporating local culture, Potter said it wouldn’t be right for students to have to leave their homes to receive an education.

“I understand budgets, but to base the entire lives of the children on the back of money … Our children are precious, and they deserve to have their education,” said Potter. “They deserve to go to school where they live.”

Rep. Foster said discussions about the legislation are still in the early stages. More concrete proposals would come in January during the legislature’s next session.

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Laura Kraegel covers Unalaska and the Aleutian Islands for KUCB . Originally from Chicago, she first came to Alaska to work at KNOM, reporting on Nome and the Bering Strait Region. (laura@kucb.org / 907.581.6700)

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