The Tanana school district is $200,000 in the hole and needs the state to bail it out or faces a tough choice: Stop paying the bills, or stop paying teachers.
That's the message this week from Tanana City School District Superintendent John Bania.
Bania went to work for the shrinking district in August and found old unpaid bills, a quarter-million-dollar deficit and "financial chaos," according to interviews and a letter the superintendent wrote describing the budget woes.
Gov. Sarah Palin's rural adviser, John Moller, said he plans to visit the school on Friday. Bania hopes Moller will push for the Legislature to inject enough money into the district budget to make it to the next fiscal year.
The largely Athabascan village is two miles from the junction of the Tanana and Yukon rivers, roughly 130 miles west of Fairbanks. It's been shrinking steadily over the past several years -- and lately school enrollment has been dropping even faster.
In 1998, there were 104 students in the school, according to the state Department of Education and Early Development.
This year the district -- which is really just a single, kindergarten-through-12th-grade school -- started the year with just 39 kids.
Young people are leaving the village, said Charlie Wright, the local water plant operator and father of five. Wright moved to Tanana around 1990 from the village of Rampart.
He was looking for opportunities, he said. Now Tanana kids are doing the same thing.
"As they get old enough, there ain't nothing here for them. They either got to leave for school or work."
The lack of jobs and housing, combined with a rising cost of living driven by high energy prices, is pushing people away Wright said.
But energy costs are high in other rural Alaska villages too. Bania writes that a slew of additional factors combined to create the Tanana budget shortfall, including:
• A 30 percent drop in enrollment since last year.
• $100,000 in invoices or bills that hadn't been paid the previous year, with some left over from two years ago.
• The district's earlier decision not to cut staff but to give raises and adopt an "exorbitant" health care plan.
The previous Tanana superintendent couldn't be reached for comment Tuesday or Wednesday.
"She never gave us a budget to see, and maybe that's our fault but we always kept requesting one," said School Board chairwoman Faith Peters, who lists the lack of students and high energy costs as main reasons for the shortfall.
The more students a district has, the more money it gets from the state. The sinking enrollment was likely a major factor in the schools' budget struggles in recent years, said Eddy Jeans, state director of school finance and facilities.
To save money this year, the school cut nonteacher employees' hours -- sometimes by half -- and canceled some athletic travel such as basketball trips, Bania said Tuesday.
Without help from the state, he wrote, the school will have to stop paying its electric, phone, water and sewer bills or ask teachers to wait for their final paychecks until this summer, when the new fiscal year begins.
Wright, the local parent, said that as the school shrinks and there are fewer activities, students are heading to charter schools in other communities.
The basketball teams did make it to the recent regional tournament in Fairbanks, though they didn't qualify for the state finals this week in Anchorage.
"Maybe next year. If there is a next year," Wright said.
Find Kyle Hopkins' rural blog at www.adn.com/thevillage. Call him at 257-4334.
By KYLE HOPKINS