A day after Anchorage’s snow-buried roads had been cleared just enough for the school district to resume in-person instruction, a single school remained closed Thursday: O’Malley Elementary.
The closure baffled and frustrated some families on the Anchorage Hillside who were forced to contend with an added day of remote learning this week.
“It was really weird to wake up and see the text message that said all schools were open except O’Malley,” said Laura Eichelberger, a parent of two children who attend the school.
The day before, she’d heard from her children’s teachers that the only road to the school still hadn’t been plowed. “... And it was just kind of shocking to me because it seems like it’s not a very long section of road,” she said.
The extra day of closure was due to a series of unfortunate events: an unread letter from the service area responsible for clearing the road; a forgotten, decades-old agreement; and a delayed phone call.
“They told us not to (plow that road),” said John Light, whose company is contracted by the service area that for decades has been responsible for plowing the short section of road that leads to the school.
“And then, all of a sudden, they told us to do it,” he said.
“There was a misunderstanding,” Mark Corsentino, one of five board members with the Upper O’Malley Limited Road Service Area, said Friday.
The Anchorage Hillside has several dozen service areas that are responsible for maintaining their own roads, including plowing. Service area members pay dues, and can vote on the scope of their work, according to the municipality. Each service area has a locally elected Board of Supervisors, who choose private contractors to carry out the work.
The single road that leads to O’Malley Elementary, Rockridge Drive, is actually miles from the Upper O’Malley service area’s jurisdiction, but still a road the Upper O’Malley service area is responsible for maintaining, Corsentino said.
This summer, the board met and puzzled over the road being part of their jurisdiction, according to Corsentino.
Maintenance of the road costs several thousand dollars per year, though the issue isn’t money — it’s how far the road is from the service area, which is time consuming and logistically challenging, he said.
“We were all scratching our heads, because we’re all fairly new to this board,” Corsentino said. “And we’re wondering why we’re taking care of this road that’s several miles from our (service area).”
In August, the board sent a letter to the Anchorage School District — since the road directly leads to the school — that said the service area would no longer be maintaining the road.
“This letter is being sent to the school district well in advance of winter to allow the school time to make alternate arrangements,” it said. The letter was dated Aug. 13, and signed by all five members.
The board never received a response to the letter, Corsentino said.
“It never got passed around, apparently,” he said.
On Thursday, Corsentino said the board members received a call from the district.
According to Corsentino, the district informed the board that according to a several-decades-old city ordinance, the service area is obligated to maintain that road.
“We didn’t know that,” Corsentino said. “As soon as they shared that with us, we took care of it. So we’re going to fulfill our obligation and keep doing it.”
A school district spokesperson in a text message on Friday said the school was not responsible for Rockridge Drive, and that the municipality “reached out (Thursday) afternoon and told us they were going to take care of clearing it so we could open the school.”
In a statement Monday, the district said the first time it learned of the letter was Nov. 16, via an email from the O’Malley service area group.
“The email asked who is responsible for Rockridge Drive and included a screenshot of a letter dated August 13th that was addressed to the ASD Maintenance Department. ASD has no record of receipt of said letter at this time,” the district’s statement statement said.
Light, who owns Western Construction and Equipment, the road maintenance contractor for the service area, said he was told in August that he would no longer need to maintain that road.
Then on Thursday afternoon, Light received two phone calls — one from the municipality and one from the service area board members — both asking if he was available to take care of that road, after all.
He said he sent his grader out to the road Thursday afternoon.
“Why would you wait till the snowfall, and then tell people, when you’ve already told them not to do it, that they need to do it?” he said.
Corsentino said he was planning to take a vote among service members on proposing an April ballot measure that could rid the service area of its obligation to maintain that road.
“It’s just one of those things, where (the ordinance) is decades old. And when people start to press issues, things get unearthed. And then we learn,” Corsentino said.
“We are volunteer representatives, so we have limited resources, and we don’t know everything, clearly,” he said.
This story has been updated to include a statement from the Anchorage School District.