Students, parents and faculty on the Kenai Peninsula are coming to grips with the reality that state cuts to education may force school closures. Chapman School in Anchor Point is among a half-dozen schools in the area that could be shuttered. As education funding is hashed out locally and in Juneau, parents and teachers are deciding whether to wait out the process or move out of town.
“One, two, three eyes on me. We are going to take the next couple minutes to get our snack finish up and then we will get started on our math test,” Vanessa Wilcox said to her second grade class on a recent Wednesday morning.
Teachers like Wilcox are dealing with an uncertain future. Shortly after Gov. Mike Dunleavy unveiled his proposed budget in February, the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District put out a list of six schools it may shut down. That list has been growing.
Chapman Elementary with 18 faculty and 134 students is among them.
“I won’t know if I will have a job here until May or June or maybe even July and at that point most of the teaching jobs in the Lower 48 will have already been filled,” Wilcox said.
Wilcox said she’s not applying for jobs, not yet. She’s reluctant to uproot her life from Anchor Point on the southern Kenai Peninsula.
“We have two daughters. Four months ago, I had another baby, and so just that uncertainty has been hard for us and our choice to have a second daughter may have been different if we knew that this was going to happen,” she explained as she started to tear up.
Summer Bertsch’s eight-year-old son Sabastian is in Wilcox’s class. He had speech issues when he started school at Chapman. Sitting on her couch, Bertsch attributes the small class sizes for helping him get the remedial help he needed.
“He went from no one being able to understand a word he said to now he talks to everyone all day long about Pokémon. So I’m sure they’re really regretting that choice,” Bertsch laughed.
She’s worried that teachers like Wilcox will leave due to uncertainty over the school’s future and that could mean larger class sizes, and her fears aren’t unfounded.
Chapman School Principal Conrad Woodhead said some of his teachers are already looking for jobs in the Lower 48 and they won’t be easy to replace.
“Homer is beautiful. It’s a postcard community, that’s what they think of when they think of the Southern Pen[insula],” he explained. “So, sometimes it is harder to get folks that want to live in Anchor Point, and so that’s why my current staff is so important because a lot of them are local, a lot of them want to be here.”
It’s not just teachers who are grappling with whether to stay.
Dustin Poindexter’s five and seven-year-old attend Chapman just down the road from their home.
Poindexter and his wife say they’re wondering whether they’ll even stay in Alaska. They want to live in a state where education is a priority, a phrase you’ll hear from many Chapmen parents in the same situation.
They’re considering putting their two-bedroom house on the market.
“If it comes down to it and they say, ‘Yep, this is the budget. We’re cutting everything.’ At that point, we might have a hard time selling the house, especially our location,” Poindexter said. “We’re pretty near the local school, so it’s nice for a family to have.”
Not everyone can just pick up and leave. Bertsch said it’s not an option for her family, but they’re willing to sacrifice a full PFD or pay income tax to support schools. She moved here from Ohio, a state where she said public schools faced the same funding problems.
“Every year it seemed like the school districts were trying to pass another levy to get more money for funding for education, and it’s like you have to scrape by every year and try and convince people to take care of our kids,” she added. “That wasn’t something I wanted to do.”
Alaska’s Legislature is still working out the final details of the budget. But Gov. Dunleavy has made a point of threatening to wield a line-item veto to cut the budget. A lot could happen between now and then.
But for many parents and teachers in Anchor Point, waiting is the hardest part.