Despite cutting the capital budget by more than 20 percent this fiscal year, the State of Alaska increased spending on large education infrastructure work by 18 percent.
Lawmakers appropriated $98.8 million to such projects for the state's 2014 fiscal year, which began July 1. The Department of Education and Early Development's Major Maintenance Grant Fund was allocated nearly $23 million for 13 projects. The department's School Construction Grant Fund garnered more than $73 million to go towards three renovation and new construction projects.
Additionally, the state-run Mt. Edgecumbe boarding high school in Sitka received $2.8 million for heating system upgrades and deferred maintenance repairs. The current capital budget is about $2.2 billion, compared with $2.8 billion in fiscal 2013.
Last fiscal year the state spent $78.8 million on schools through the funds. The Major Maintenance fund received nearly $17.9 million and $60.9 million was appropriated to the School Construction fund.
In recent years the construction funding has gone to a few schools in large chunks. All three of the construction projects that were awarded state money in fiscal 2014 are located in the Yukon-Kuskokwim region in Western Alaska. The Nightmute School received $32.9 million for renovations and building expansion.
The Kuinerramiut Elitnaurviat school, a K-12 facility in Quinhagak, was appropriated $13.2 million for a major remodel and growth and $25 million was appropriated towards design and construction of a new K-12 school Kwethluk near Bethel.
Building and maintaining even small schools in rural Alaska communities can be extremely expensive because of the cost of shipping building materials to remote locations and housing construction crews.
The maintenance funding often ranges from less than $100,000 for upkeep projects such as roof or siding replacement and fire alarm and sprinkler system upgrades, to multimillion dollar heating and ventilation system overhauls.
Metlakatla's Annette Island School District Superintendent Eugene Avey said oftentimes rural communities do not have the tax bases with which to generate the revenue needed for school maintenance and construction.
The Annette Island district in far Southeast received the largest Major Maintenance appropriation in fiscal 2014 at $14.5 million for renovating Richard Johnson Elementary School.
"We're the only (Native) reservation in the state of Alaska. Therefore, we have no taxation abilities on our reservation to support any kind of major maintenance projects or new capital projects," Avey said. "We get 100 percent of our funding from the State of Alaska."
The renovation in Metlakatla will focus on improving Richard Johnson Elementary's aging and inefficient heating system and replacing weathered portions of the near-50 year-old building, which about 160 students through sixth grade report to every school day, Avey said.
Portions of the school are heated with an electric boiler, but Avey said upgrading the school's fuel oil furnace will "significantly improve its energy efficiency."
Without the state money, he said the district would be stuck doing patchwork "cosmetic" maintenance to its buildings.
The grant money will bring the school into the 21st century and ready it for several more decades worth of students, Avey added.
"We're going to have a full security camera system installed as well as protected doors to make sure we can access the school with electronic key cards," he said. "This will significantly modernize the facility."
By Elwood Brehmer
Alaska Journal of Commerce