Kivalina voters consider new school 7 miles away

Rachel D'Oro | Associated Press
BOB HALLINEN / Daily News archive 2008

Voters in one of Alaska's most storm-eroded coastal villages will decide next week whether to build a new school seven miles away -- a project one local official believes could hasten efforts to relocate the crumbling community.

Janet Mitchell, Kivalina's city administrator, said a yes vote Tuesday also could speed construction of a long-desired road that would provide economic development and better access for subsistence hunters in the Inupiat Eskimo village.

Kivalina is a traditional Inupiat Eskimo community of more than 400 people 625 miles northwest of Anchorage. It is built on an eight-mile barrier reef between the Kivalina River and the Chukchi Sea. It is reachable only by boat or plane, or, in winter, by snowmobile.

Sea ice historically protected the village, whose economy is based in part on fishing plus subsistence hunting of whale, seal, walrus and caribou. But with climate change and higher temperatures, ice is forming later and melting sooner. That has left the village unprotected longer from storm waves and surges that pummel coastal communities in Alaska.

Mitchell said Kivalina was 54 acres decades ago but erosion has squeezed it to half that size.

"We get a little worried when we get a storm," she said.

The proposed school site is in an area called Kisimagiuqtuq, seven miles north of Kivalina. Mitchell said it was chosen because it is on higher ground and may be a potential gravel source.

She envisions a road linking the school site and the village. Not only would a road provide better access to hunting grounds, it would also be an evacuation route if necessary. It would be a route for relocating as well and could serve as a way to build a new landfill to replace the old one, which is full, forcing residents to throw their trash and sewage outside the landfill, Mitchell said.

"There are many potential advantages for having a road built," she said.

Funding for the new school would come from the state's recent agreement to settle a lawsuit that alleged funding inequities that hurt rural schools.

Terms of the agreement, which a judge must approve, call for the governor to seek legislative approval for funding five high-priority school construction projects -- including one for Kivalina -- in rural Alaska over the next four years. Estimates have put the cost of the projects, which include school renovations and replacements, at nearly $146 million.

The plaintiffs, who include parents, reserved the right to reopen the case if funding isn't provided as described in the agreement. There is an exception with the Kivalina K-12 school project. The case could not be reopened if the Legislature doesn't fund the Kivalina project or places contingencies on it over concerns about erosion or the functionality of the school site.

The current school in Kivalina was built in the mid-1970s. The building is now too small for the population and is in deteriorating condition, said Norm Eck, superintendent of the Northwest Arctic Borough School District.

"The facility is run down," he said. "It's just like an old house that needs to be brought up to speed."

Eck estimated the cost of building a new school at between $35 million and $40 million. Funding for the road would have to come from another source and village leaders are exploring options for it.

The area between Kivalina and the proposed school site is tundra, some of it very swampy, Eck said. It would not be crossable by foot or all-terrain vehicle in warmer months, but would be reachable by snowmobile in winter.

Associated Press