For many Alaska villages, the heart of the community is the school. Potlucks, community meetings, dances, tournaments, weddings and funerals all happen within the doors of the largest building; learning happens there, too.
When a village of fewer than 100 people loses its school, the results can be devastating. A lifelong resident of the Aleutians, University of Alaska (distance education) student Candace Schaack is raising her daughter in Cold Bay. She lived in Nelson Lagoon years ago; that school also had its doors closed by the Aleutians East Borough School District.
"This is a very negative impact on the community," Schaack said. "The school is the heart of the town and without it there will be no room for growth and development. It's so sad to even think about our town without our children."
Longtime district employee Kerry Burkhardt, the current principal-teacher at the Cold Bay School, concedes that the spring semester has been a very trying time for community members, parents, students and for her.
The decision to close the school first came under Burkhardt's radar on the school board meeting agenda early in the year.
"We were flatly and frequently assured that this school would never close," Burkhardt said, according to two previous superintendents. "Cold Bay is a hub. Parents would ask me about the future of the school and I assured them because I was assured. Closing the school was listed under actions for the January meeting."
The magic enrollment number for maintaining a school in rural Alaska is 10 students. Cold Bay's enrollment rested on just four middle school boys this spring semester.
Knowing the nature of Cold Bay's transient population and the potential for high-paying jobs in the health and transportation/weather industries, many, including Burkhardt, never worried about enrollment, knowing it would increase in the near future.
"We have jobs open," Burkhardt said. "The weather board filled two jobs with people moving here with school-aged children."
When the school board decided to close the site, those families turned down their new jobs.
Jobs within the Cold Bay area include government employment at Izembek National Wildlife Refuge, the weather service, the Federal Aviation Administration and positions working for the city, local airlines and the state Department of Transportation.
"Cold Bay is filled with so much history and character," Schaack said. "The opportunities for adventure and learning valuable life skills are endless. Cold Bay serves as the hub of our region: the Aleutians East Borough."
Cold Bay's role as a World War II air base gave important purchase to the Aleutian expansion of American assets. Now it is the Gateway to the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge as well as serving as an important center of transportation. "Whenever there are medical emergencies, we have a volunteer EMS squad who is always willing to help with whatever needs to be done," Schaack said. "Without the school, many of those volunteers will move. Cold Bay is also an emergency landing site for overseas flights and has had flights come in with hundreds of passengers. Our school is where we put up those passengers and without it, it will be a struggle to find a place for them."
The district allowed 46 days for Burkhardt and Cold Bay shareholders to prove the need for the school and to procure funding.
"The district determined that it costs $211,000 to run the Cold Bay School," Burkhardt said.
Schaack said she believes the district's decision is demeaning.
"Options for funding (by the district) were never sought out, which upsets me the most," she said. "There was no fight to keep the school open; just as was done in Nelson Lagoon. I moved back to Cold Bay with the full intention of working for the community and our surrounding communities. I have had people ask several times, 'Well you knew the count was under; didn't you know the school was going to close?' The answer is no. I was told -- ever since I was going to Cold Bay School -- that there would be no way the district would close the school because it is the central location and a vital one."
Burkhardt rallied community members and showed evidence of future higher enrollment to the school board at the April meeting. She also brought evidence of support of funding for the school from saving on transportation costs to the city of Cold Bay's decision to waive charges for the school's sewer and water bill for a year.
"Cold Bay pledged to donate 40 hours of light maintenance to the school at no charge to the district as well as pledging $10,000 from their operating budget to the school along with council members' donations of their yearly stipends," Burkhardt said.
The Izembek Refuge showed interest in renting the school building during the summer and PenAir wrote a letter of support to keep the school open.
"A community member started a GoFundMe site with a maximum of $5,000 to show the school board that the community is committed to trying all avenues to help with funding," Burkhardt said.
"One of my favorite memories is the year that we hosted a culture camp and were given the opportunity of a lifetime to actually build traditional Native kayaks, which I still have," Schaack said. "I could tell you many more memories of the school that grew and shaped me into the individual I am today and my boyfriend would tell you the same thing; he actually graduated from the Cold Bay School. These are opportunities I will not be able to give to my own daughter if the school stays closed," she said.
In the ultimate show of reverence for a town poised to lose its school, Burkhart resigned with the hope that the district could replace her position with a teacher who had school-age children.
She, like the other members of the Cold Bay community now looks to the future. Unfortunately for her, it is beyond Cold Bay's perimeter.
"I will move to Anchorage, where I will continue to teach," she said.
Meanwhile, those who are staying say the school's pending closure is a huge loss.
"It's wrong that the school is closing," Burkhardt said. "It's hugely tragic to our community."
This story first appeared in The Bristol Bay Times/Dutch Harbor Fisherman and is republished here with permission.