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Published in Print: June 13, 2001, as Out in the Cold

Out in the Cold

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State leaders in Alaska are under court order to improve the condition of schools in the state's far-flung rural villages.



George Lewis, who is 12, has never seen a highway or a tall building. He lives in a little blue house, along his village's short gravel road, on a sandy spit that juts into icy-white Norton Sound, thousands of miles away from the rest of the United States.

His school, located in the heart of a school district the size of Minnesota, isn't falling down. But it's way too small, and it's scattered among four buildings. Travel between them is a nuisance and a danger. The school is unable to offer him the kind of simple amenities he'd get in Anchorage, or most places in the country besides a Native Alaskan village a walrus swim from the Arctic Circle.

To get to the bathroom, George must leave his classroom and head for another building. Outside, in the winter, it's dark all day. The temperature can drop to 30 degrees below zero, and the blowing snow piles up higher than a stepladder. Slippery steps carved from ice lead into the cafeteria. A warm corridor, or even a covered sidewalk, would be welcome.

To get to lunch, George and his 6th grade classmates might interrupt a classroom of younger children. The cafeteria, no larger than a regular-size classroom, is accessible by two doors, and one of them leads right through a class for elementary-age students. The lunchroom is cramped with the school's copier, two refrigerators, and a wall of gray, beaten shelves lined with a cupboard's worth of food.

To play basketball, which he loves to do, George and his buddies scamper across a gym floor less than half the size of a regular one. A folding metal chair won't fit between the wall and the out-of-bounds line, which means there's no space for anyone to watch a game. Students must travel by airplane to play home basketball games, and for volleyball, elders and mothers with babies sit near the net to avoid being hit.

To make a call or talk with parents, George's principal uses an office measuring 10 feet by 10 feet. He shares this space with his secretary, who uses a desk sized for a child.

"There's just enough room to change your mind," jokes Steve Sammons, the principal in Golovin, who moved here from Montana after his retirement, leaving his family back in the lower 48 for the school year.

No library graces the school in Golovin, known as the Martin L. Olson School. The books are shelved in a classroom that triples as a computer lab. There's a wood shop, but no teacher for the class this year. There's no art, music, dance, or even a full-time physical education teacher for the 55 students in preschool through high school.

All of this is why John A. Davis, a native New Englander now in his second year as the superintendent of the 1,800-student Bering Strait school district, which includes Golovin, wants the state of Alaska to get far more involved in paying for school construction and improving the quality of education for Eskimo children. His district, which reaches the Diomede Islands straddling the Russian border, has said so in a lawsuit brought against the state three years ago by a handful of rural residents and eight rural school districts.

"My overall goal is to see that every child has a reasonably adequate school facility. 'Reasonable' is one that doesn't have a leaky roof, that meets regular fire and safety codes," says Davis.

A former superintendent in the islands of Southwest Alaska, Davis now travels every year from his home in the Bering Strait village of Unalakleet to Juneau, the state capital, where he lobbies for construction money for rural schools. This year, one of his objectives was a new school for Golovin, ranked second-highest on a state's list of schools with the most serious problems. Like Golovin, many of those schools are in places that even few Alaskans have ever visited.

Alaska's struggle to define the state's role in paying for school construction is compounded by the long distances between its communities, and the drastic differences in how its people live. At more than 615,000 square miles, Alaska has barely one person for every square mile—and only 1 percent of the state is inhabited.

But in his fight, Davis has many counterparts across the country— school leaders in largely rural states pushing for construction money, and taking their cases to court. In many respects, Alaska's debate over school facilities resembles those in such places as Kansas, Arkansas, Utah, and Wyoming, which have been pushed by the courts to change how they pay for school buildings. At stake in such fights is often much more than bricks and mortar, or lumber and steel: They are battles for better education, and by extension, community survival.


Hundreds of villages like Golovin are scattered across rural Alaska. From the rolling green mountains above British Columbia, to the remote Aleutian Islands in southwestern Alaska, to the inner slopes that are a focus of national debate over drilling for oil, villages need new buildings or complete renovations.

Many of the schools, including the one in Golovin, still use old federal Bureau of Indian Affairs structures, built in the 1930s, as parts of their campuses. Alaska tried to make up for the poor buildings in 1976 with a $200 million wave of construction stemming from a lawsuit named for a student who sued: Molly Hooch. A wedge-shaped design, with a roof sloping to one side, makes the schools built during that period unmistakable. At first glance, these 25-year-old schools seem to be the most impressive buildings in each village, and many times they are. But they warrant a closer look.

The wooden exterior of the school in Golovin is warped like a toy wagon left out in the rain. Even though it got a fresh coat of paint just last year, the wood isn't treated for harsh winter conditions, says Bob Dickens, who oversees construction and building maintenance for the Bering Strait district.

‘There's just enough room to change your mind.’

Steve Sammons,
Principal,
Martin L. Olson School,
Golovin, Alaska

In 1998, the state was sued again on behalf of rural students. In his first ruling in the case two years ago, Superior Court Judge John Reese pulled no punches, calling Alaska's way of paying for rural school buildings clearly discriminatory against Native Alaskans.

The ruling gave Davis, who is the president of the Citizens for the Educational Advancement of Alaska's Children, or CEAAC, the group of rural districts that signed on to the lawsuit, hope for better days ahead. But his hope has not yet been realized.

Gov. Tony Knowles, a Democrat in his second term, responded to the court last year with a plan to spend more than $550 million on rural schools over three years. But the legislature slashed the plan to $198 million, and nearly half the money went toward college buildings and urban schools. About $112 million, enough to build 10 rural schools, including one in the Bering Strait village of Elim, was part of the May 2000 plan.

In March of this year, Judge Reese handed down another stern ruling, warning state lawmakers that if they didn't do more to fix the problem, he'd dictate a solution for them.

The governor proposed a more modest construction plan, equal to the amount lawmakers had agreed to spend the previous year: $198 million. The legislature cut that to $105 million, enough to build four schools and renovate dozens of others, selected from lists of emergency construction needs compiled by the state education department. But the estimated cost of completing all those projects—59 on the construction list and 94 more on the maintenance list—tops half a billion dollars.


Elim is a neighboring village to Golovin, which means it's almost 20 mountain-range miles away. That's an hour's ride by snow machine, the term Alaskans give the vehicles often called snowmobiles elsewhere.

Last year, Elim was one of the fortunate ones: It landed state money for a replacement school to be built next year. But the needs in Elim go beyond the building itself, says Principal Lyn Ferrucci.

Her community and school of 100 students has dealt with the deaths of three children and a staff member in the past year. One boy, a 9th grader who had made Ferrucci a necklace of walrus-tusk ivory that she still wears, died after driving his snow machine into the bay in December. Then, a teaching assistant suffered a brain hemorrhage in February, dying in the school lobby in the principal's arms.

"I need a full-time counselor," Ferrucci says, standing in the same hallway where the woman died. "Our kids need to talk."

Officials in the rural schools view the state's response to their construction needs as an indication of broader educational neglect of Alaska Native children.

Ferrucci and others in the rural schools view the state's response to their construction needs as an indication of broader educational neglect of Alaska Native children.

This year, the school ranked as being in the most dire need of replacement was in a village called Togiak, on Bristol Bay, about 400 miles directly south of Golovin. Principal Lorraine Hashey says her building is dilapidated. "They haven't condemned it yet," she remarks. But her needs are academic, as well: No student from Togiak, she says, has ever completed college.

Third on the state's list, behind Togiak and Golovin, is the school in the Bering Strait village of Koyuk. Its two classroom buildings are connected by a heated hallway, but the preschool is housed in an old metal building outside, says Principal Chuck Connolly. The school is actually sinking, and needs steel braces for support.

The Alaska Department of Education keeps lists of emergency building needs, one for construction projects and another for urgently needed maintenance. As the chairwoman of the state school board, Fairbanks teacher Susan Stitham helps oversee the lists. She watched last year as legislators approved the top six projects on the construction list, then picked others from down the list, even paying for urban projects the department didn't consider a priority. "It's so infuriating," she says.


Why the state hasn't done more to help its rural schools is a touchy subject. Gov. Knowles and others are reluctant to say what Judge Reese concluded clearly in his most recent ruling— that race is a factor.

"The rural funding is political, and has been arbitrary, inadequate, and racially discriminatory," the judge wrote. "As we spend the money available, we cannot spend it on urban, mostly non-Native children first, and then say there is not enough to go around."

Knowles, a former mayor of Anchorage who depended on rural voters to help him win election, is frustrated that the legislature has failed to move faster to address the problems highlighted by the judge. He wants to establish a permanent system for school construction spending that keeps politics out of the mix.

"We are required both constitutionally and morally to offer the same opportunities for the student in rural Alaska as we do for the student in urban Alaska," he says.

He warns that lawmakers who fail to improve rural school conditions might invite more poverty into the cities. "It will migrate to the urban areas, and they will be dealing with a people who are jobless and undereducated," he says. "We pay the price for all of those who don't make the grade."

‘You run into problems with people that crave their handout and aren't willing to help themselves.’

State Sen. Gary Wilken

State Sen. Gary Wilken, a Republican, says he represents the views of many urban taxpayers. A towering man who has posted a sign over his office door in Juneau that says, "The Time Is Always Right To Do What's Right," he proposed a bill this year to require some rural villagers to pay property taxes for the first time. If rural residents paid what they could, taxpayers in more populated parts of the state—including his town, Fairbanks, the state's second- largest city—would be willing to invest more in rural schools, he says.

"You run into problems with people that crave their handout and aren't willing to help themselves," Wilken says. "This focuses the spotlight ... on the have-nots so they can become haves."

Wilken says he gets a bum rap as insensitive when he's one of the few legislators to have actually visited some of the remote schools. He and others in Juneau argue that Alaska's budget has become far tighter than it was in prior years. Yet while it's true that the state collects less in oil, timber, and fishing taxes than in years past, others say it's a matter of priorities.

Jerri Nagaruk is a former teacher at Elim who for years now has run a village library there. "We have about 320 people in this village, and I can probably count 30 jobs that are available for those people—if you stretch it," she says of Elim, where her husband is the city manager working to get a job-producing granite quarry opened nearby. "It's not that people aren't willing. It's that we don't have anything to get revenue from."

Not every legislator completely agrees with Wilken. Rep. Peggy Wilson, who is a Republican, lives on the fishing-village island of Wrangell about 200 miles southeast of Juneau where her husband is the superintendent of schools. A former legislator in North Carolina, she argued this year for a change in basic school funding to help rural districts. "When you live out in the middle of nowhere, you realize you can't have everything you want, but you want your kids to have good schools like everybody else," she says.

Sheldon Nagaruk, a teacher at Elim and the brother-in-law of the village librarian, is one of the few Alaska Native educators in all the Bering Strait schools. Most teachers and principals are white. Asked why the state has been slow to repair and replace schools in his region, he responds: "I think I would agree with the judge."

Harry Gamble, a longtime administrator in the state education department who watches the construction list closely, scoffs at legislators' claims about budget shortages. He's not alone in pointing out where the state can find a reservoir of extra money: the Alaska Permanent Fund.

Everyone in the state gets a check each October from that account, built from investments of oil-pipeline taxes. Last year, the fund paid each person in Alaska a dividend of $1,963.84—nearly $8,000 for a family of four. The fund's current balance is $26.6 billion. Even though a constitutional amendment would be required to tap the fund for schools or other purposes, Gamble says: "We've got the money."


Anchorage isn't the capital of Alaska, but it might as well be. With 250,000 residents and a few modest skyscrapers, it is by far the state's largest city. And more than half the state's legislators call the tourist and oil town home.

The atrium of Goldenview Middle School, built three years ago, has one of the best views in Anchorage. It's breathtaking.

The atrium of Goldenview Middle School, built three years ago, has one of the best views in Anchorage. Walk inside, and there's a two-story lobby with a picture window, looking across the tops of skinny, green spruce trees to a deep- blue bay. It's breathtaking.

The school's gym has an indoor running track. Nearby, there's a carpeted room where students eat lunch beside a stage with professional lighting. Each wing of the school has a conference room for teacher planning, and there's a library with skylights and mobile computer labs. Most teachers have personal computers on their desks.

Another of the city's newer schools is Fairview Elementary, a two-story building in one of the city's poorer neighborhoods. In contrast to many schools in Alaska's villages, the school boasts offices for a nurse, a guidance counselor, and a psychologist. In the gym, children have plenty of room to dribble basketballs. "We're working on getting a climbing wall," Principal Lois C. Mance says.

But the city's schools aren't all showplaces. Denali Elementary School in downtown Anchorage was built in 1950, and looks it. Bearing a native name for Mount McKinley, which looms large on the horizon, Denali has no cafeteria, and students carry their meals to their classrooms, says Principal Karen Rigg, who is hoping for a new school within two years.

"You can't expect standards and academics to go up if you've got these crumbling facilities," says Carol Comeau, the superintendent of the 50,000-student Anchorage district.

Last year, her district received nearly $78 million in construction reimbursement from the state. Even though the rural needs are real, she says, the city is booming and needs more classrooms, and the older schools need substantial repairs.

Three weeks before the end of the legislative term, Bering Strait's Superintendent Davis showed up to lobby in Juneau, nearly 1,000 miles away from his wife and two little girls back in Unalakleet. On the last day of the session, Alaska lawmakers approved $105 million for rural school construction, including $29 million for a new school in top-ranked Togiak.

Koyuk, the Bering Strait school that's sinking, will get a new $11.7 million building for all its programs. Shishmaref, another village school in the same district, where apartments for teachers are eroding into the sea, will see an $8.3 million renovation.

"We had hoped for more, but given the comments of some legislators, I am pleased we got anything," Davis says. "It would appear the more level-headed folks are finding their voice in Juneau."

George Lewis and his friends in Golovin will have a new school within two years, worth $9.9 million—but the gym still won't be full size. The state limits how much money can be spent on schools, based on enrollment.

Elsewhere, more than 100 school projects across rural Alaska languish on the state's lists. And a judge is watching.

Vol. 20, Issue 40, Pages 28-31

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