AD Main Menu

Fish tax funds used to keep doors open at remote Alaska school

Jim PaulinDutch Harbor Fisherman

When the U.S. senators and top brass landed at Cold Bay last week and jumped onto a helicopter to visit an at-sea Coast Guard cutter, they hadn't informed the mayor of the visit to his community. And more importantly, from a local perspective, they weren't setting up housekeeping.

When Mayor Jorge Lopez thinks of federal employees in his community, he's hoping for fulltime residents with children who will help keep the tiny community's school open.

This year, for the first time he knows of, the school lacks the magic number of students -- 10 -- required for state funding, although the borough is saving the school in a pinch.

"If we fall below the 10-count, we're looking at getting shut down, and that's the last thing we want. The more people we have moving to this town with kids, the better off we'll be," Lopez said.

Just seven students are signed up for the start of school, but Lopez is hoping for a influx of federal assistance in the form of school-age children when new workers from the National Weather Service and Izembek National Wildlife Refuge arrive. Lopez said the population is "well under 100," and is hoping for more people and development.

Without 10 students, the State of Alaska won't pay for the school, but not to worry, the Aleutian East Borough and the AEB School District are stepping up to the plate with $275,000 to keep the school open, said school Supt. Tim Stathis in Sand Point.

"The borough is making the statement that it is going to support the school," as long as the school has a good chance of reaching 10 students later, said Stathis.

Cold Bay's chances are better than Nelson Lagoon's, which is closing its school because of too few students and little likelihood of the situation improving, Stathis said.

Stathis said the Cold Bay support comes from two sources, the borough itself, and the school district's general fund. If 10 students are enrolled by the end of October, the state will pay the full bill, and the $275,000 Cold Bay support funds will be divided among the other four schools in the district, in King Cove, A kutan, S and Point, and False Pass, Stathis said.

So in a nutshell, it's fish taxes bailing out the Cold Bay school, derived from the borough's fisheries-based economy, with hopes of state oil revenues later, which are more likely to flow if the federal agencies pump up the local population.

The tiny Cold Bay school serves students in kindergarten through grade 12 with just one teacher, Kerry Burkhardt, Stathis said.

U.S. Sens. Mary Landrieu, D-La., Mark Begich, D-Alaska, and Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, and Coast Guard Commandant Robert Papp flew to Cold Bay on Tuesday, and transferred to a helicopter for a visit to the new-model Coast Guard cutter Bertholf, which was on patrol in the Bering Sea as part of the agency's Arctic Shield program.

On Monday, Aug. 6, the group attended a Coast Guard hearing in Kodiak on the changing role of the Arctic with the likely development of offshore oil reserves.

"We didn't even know they were coming out here. I don't have a clue what they're doing," said Lopez, who saw a Coast Guard C-130 cargo plane arrive while working at the state airport where he's an equipment operator.

Julie Hasquet, a spokeswoman for Sen. Begich, said a tight schedule did not allow for a visit with local officials.

She said two helicopters flew to the cutter, one with the high-ranking officials, and another with staff.

Lopez said the Coast Guard stations a helicopter and crew in Cold Bay during crab season for rescue missions, and shares housing with the state troopers.

The city of Cold Bay is hoping for a permanent Coast Guard presence, and is calling for the construction of a hanger large enough for a C-130 cargo plane, and housing for Coast Guard personnel, ideally families with children, Lopez said.

The Bertholf was one of two cutters now on Bering Sea patrol this week, along with the Munro which recently delivered an Air Force pilot to Cold Bay after his F-16 jet crashed, and was rescued by a commercial vessel that later transferred him to the 378-foot cutter.

An Air Force cargo plane flew him back to his home base in Japan from Cold Bay, said Coast Guard spokeswoman Sara Francis in Kodiak.

The ice breaker Healy will soon arrive in Unalaska to pick up scientists for its regularly scheduled summer Arctic research mission, unrelated to Shell's proposed exploratory oil drilling, and the cutter Rush was on high seas driftnet patrol off the coast of Japan, she said.

Contact Jim Paulin at jpaulin(at)reportalaska.com. This story was originally published by The Bristol Bay Times and is reprinted here with permission.