If we cut Alaska rural schools we'll lose so much for so little saved

A proposal recently put forward by a small number of Railbelt legislators has many of our constituents very worried. In order to cut education spending, these lawmakers suggest raising from 10 to 25 the minimum number of students required for a school to qualify for state funding. This scheme would have devastating impacts on dozens of communities in Alaska, consequences that would be vastly out of proportion to the amount of money saved.

We are writing this to declare to not only our rural constituents but to bush Alaskans across the state that we are dead against such a plan, and we will fight tooth and nail against it if it gains any ground in the Legislature.

Here is why:

Confronted with the dramatic drop in oil revenues and multibillion-dollar deficits, we have supported budget cuts of historic proportions in recent years -- cuts that totaled nearly $800 million in the current fiscal year's funding. We recognize the unfortunate need to continue lowering spending, even as we work to increase and diversify state revenues, but the impacts of every reduction must be carefully evaluated.

We have done our utmost to only support cutbacks that do as little harm as possible to essential programs and services, that have as little adverse impact as possible on our economies, and that do not create burdens that fall disproportionately on rural Alaskans. Raising the minimum student number for state funding of schools fails as wise policy by all these measures.

According to the Department of Education, such a move would shut down 58 schools across the state. They stretch from the Hyder School in Southeast to the Larsen Bay School on Kodiak Island to the Cruikshank School in Beaver, more than 100 miles north of Fairbanks. A school closure in a small community has a disastrous effect. If the people promoting these closures require examples, they need look no further than the pages of this newspaper, which in August ran a moving feature by Michelle Theriault Boots called "The Last Kid in Cold Bay."

The closing of a school "can feel like a death blow," wrote Theriault Boots, who chronicled the inevitable exit of entire families -- including the mayor's -- from Cold Bay after its school was shuttered last May. Not only did people move away for the sake of their children, attracting new families became virtually impossible. Theriault Boots was told that "at least one family with children who had already accepted a job in Cold Bay backed out when it became clear there would be no school."

Now just imagine the impact on many towns with fewer year-round jobs to offer than Cold Bay. In Nelson Lagoon, a fishing village on the north side of the Alaska Peninsula, the school has been closed for two years and there is now not a single child left in town.

Village schools are core public focal points, where not only do children congregate for their education but also parents and elders come to volunteer, and entire communities gather for recreation, cultural events and celebrations. In at least one of the towns we serve, a full spectrum of the community meets at the school on a regular basis in an initiative against drug and alcohol abuse.

If you agree that in these difficult fiscal times we all must step up to share the burden of reaching sustainable budgets, then you must also agree that cutting out the hearts of nearly threescore Alaska communities is a grossly inequitable proposition.

And what are the estimated savings that would supposedly justify such consequences? Less than $6 million, using the current education funding formula.

We are well aware that every dollar counts, but to put this figure in perspective, note that it represents less than half of 1 percent of the state's share of our $1.2 billion Education Budget. In terms of the $3.5 billion state deficit expected for the coming fiscal year, it amounts to only about 0.17 percent. There are other, far wiser and more evenhanded ways to find such savings.

Shuttering schools also raises constitutional issues. A step like this is nearly certain to produce lawsuits against the state. The landmark Moore Case is one among several that in recent years affirmed our constitutional requirement to provide a meaningful opportunity for Alaskan children, no matter where, to receive an education. Brought against the state in 2004, it took eight years to resolve, cost the Alaska government sizable legal expenses, and resulted in an extra $18 million in state education funding as part of the settlement. So much for $6 million in savings.

Raising the minimum student requirement is a bad idea, plain and simple. Decimating rural schools is not the way to a sustainable future. Its awful social and economic consequences dwarf the significance of any savings that would accrue to the Education Budget, and the disproportionate burden it would put on rural Alaskans is of such magnitude as to violate our state constitution.

Sen. Lyman Hoffman is a Senate Finance Committee member and represents Senate District S, which includes House District 36 and House District 37.

Sen. Gary Stevens is chairman of the Senate Education Committee and represents Senate District P, which includes House District 32 and House District 33, which include communities on Kodiak and the Gulf of Alaska.

Rep. Bryce Edgmon is chairman of the House Bush Caucus and a member of the House Finance Committee and represents House District 37, which includes communities in the Bristol Bay region and the Aleutian, Shumagin and Pribilof Islands.

Rep. Bob Herron (D-Bethel) is a Bush Caucus member and chairman of the House Committee on Economic Development, Tourism and Arctic Policy and represents House District 36, which includes communities in the Yukon and Kuskokwim Regions.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary@alaskadispatch.com