Napakiak sets up temporary classrooms as river expected to reach school

A red building on top of an eroding river bank
The school in Napakiak sits a mere 78 feet from the rapidly eroding shoreline of the Kuskokwim River. July 23, 2021 in Napakiak, Alaska. (Katie Basile/KYUK)

In the Napakiak school, the classrooms nearest to the river sit empty. The furniture and materials have been moved to temporary learning space set up in a teacher housing unit and the old preschool.

The Lower Kuskokwim School District is preparing for the possibility students in Napakiak won’t have a real school building this fall, said Superintendent Kimberly Hankins. Napakiak is a community of roughly 370 people, about 15 miles southwest of Bethel.

And there’s concerns Napakiak’s school could be partially underwater before the district has the money for a new building.

“We do anticipate being out of the existing building well in advance of a new facility being built,” Hankins said.

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The Napakiak school sits 78 feet from the water, about the same amount that erodes each year, according to recent studies. The riverbank will likely reach the school’s foundation within a year: More than a dozen feet fell into the water in June.

The school district plans to build a new school further back from the eroding riverbank. Money is expected to come from the state, but is likely several years away from being awarded. To speed up the process, the district began to build the foundation for a new school this summer with its own money. It expects to be reimbursed by the state later on.

But on June 18, work on the new foundation stopped. Hankins said that the district had been working on the project for about a month.

“The whole area had been cleared, and then they had started taking off sort of the top layer,” Hankins said.

The district ran into issues negotiating a land lease agreement with the Napakiak Corp., which owns the land where the new school would be built. But Hankins said she could disclose what those issues were.

The Lower Kuskokwim School District began construction on the foundation of a new school in Napakiak, but had to stop work on it earlier this summer. July 23, 2021 in Napakiak, Alaska. (Katie Basile)

The Napakiak Corp.’s attorney also declined to comment. Hankins said she’s unsure if work on the foundation will resume this summer.

But Hankins and the district have other concerns in Napakiak on top of building a new school.

“Unless by some miracle the river changes course, the school will need to be taken down,” Hankins said.

With the river so close to the school, the building needs to be demolished to avoid the environmental hazard it would create falling into the water. But the school district doesn’t have the funds to begin the project.

Tim Mearig used to work for the district. He’s now the facilities manager for the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development. Mearig said state funding to demolish the existing school would come at the same time as funding for a new school building — and it will likely be at least three years before Napakiak receives that grant.

“You’re saying, ‘River’s “x” feet away, it’s eroding. Can’t people see that this is a need? And why doesn’t the state step in and do something?’” Mearig said. “But the challenge for this project, and many projects, because we’ve got a long list of capital needs in the state, is resources.”

Napakiak is currently fourth on the state’s prioritized list of school construction projects. And the state Legislature typically only funds one major school construction project a year. Mearig acknowledged the need for funding in Napakiak is urgent, but he said all of the schools in the top ten of the state’s prioritized list are in dire condition.

“The projects that have scored at a higher level than Napakiak, they have, number one, unsafe and crummy buildings. Number two, they’re highly over capacity,” Mearig said.

Managed Retreat Coordinator Walter Nelson tracks the moving shoreline on a dry erase board in his office. The Napakiak school is currently 78 feet from the Kuskokwim River. July 23, 2021 in Napakiak, Alaska. (Katie Basile/KYUK)

Mearig said the other reason why Napakiak isn’t number one on the state’s priority list is because the school is not yet underwater. He said if the erosion reached the school and put students in makeshift classrooms, it would likely shoot Napakiak to the top. But even that would mean students in Napakiak would be without a school for several years at minimum.

In addition to converting teacher housing into classrooms, the school is also planning to ship portable units from Bethel to Napakiak if and when the school is no longer safe to use.

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