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Campaign to ensure small rural schools stay open ramps up

  • Author: Tegan Hanlon
  • Updated: May 31, 2016
  • Published October 14, 2015

Meghan Redmond, one of two teachers in the tiny Southwest Alaska village of Twin Hills, handed out white stickers in Anchorage this week printed with the line "#smallschoolsmatter" as part of a growing statewide campaign to keep small schools open while lawmakers prepare to wrestle with a multibillion-dollar budget gap.

The rallying cry from teachers, superintendents and students is largely preemptive and centered around the concern that in attempts to save money, the state Legislature might increase the minimum number of students a school must have to get full funding. For example, Redmond said, if legislators increase the minimum student count from 10 to 25, it could lead to the shutdown of about 60 schools, which often serve as the lifeblood of rural villages.

"It's something that's being talked about and we don't want to have to fight for our schools. We don't want it to even become a bill," said Redmond, who teaches at a K-8 school with 21 students.

Some state legislators acknowledged they will likely discuss upping the minimum student count as one of many ways to trim the $1.3 billion education budget. However, none have said they have a specific bill in the works.

"Everything's on the table and everything's going to be discussed, from school size to distance delivery to broadband to partnerships with the university where professors might be able to teach the courses," said Sen. Mike Dunleavy, a Wasilla Republican who chairs the Senate Education Committee. "The list goes on and on and on."

Ty Mase, superintendent of the Lake and Peninsula Borough School District, said pressure to keep enrollment numbers up each year has long vexed some rural areas and increasing the minimum student count will only aggravate that burden.

Each year, low enrollments force school districts to shutter a few schools, which can push shrinking villages toward extinction. In 2003, the Lake and Peninsula Borough School District closed its school in Ivanoff Bay and "at this point it's a ghost town," Mase said.

This year, the district closed its school in Egegik when enrollment dropped to about six students. For one mother, the shuttering of the school meant she had to send her two daughters away for education, Mase said.

"It just really tears families apart," he said. If the minimum enrollment increases, the Lake and Peninsula Borough School District could lose about nine of its 12 schools, he said.

Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins, D-Sitka, said while there is no bill on the table that would increase the minimum student count required for full state funding, "there's undeniably talk" about doing just that. His view is straightforward, he said, "It's a terrible idea."

"There's this vociferous statewide and preemptive opposition, which I think would be expected, and it's just a shadow of what's to come," Kreiss-Tomkins said. "I think there would totally be a sort of volcanic outrage around the state if this came to be."

The roughly 1,300 participants at the First Alaskans Institute Elders and Youth Conference passed a resolution Wednesday opposing an increase to the minimum student count as it would close the schools of an estimated 920 students, 66.5 percent of whom are Alaska Native or have other minority backgrounds, the resolution said.

At the conference, Redmond handed out slips of paper with notes from her Twin Hills students. On Saturday, she had set up a Facebook page called "Small Schools Matter: Alaska." Earlier that week, she had her students write about how they would feel if their school closed.

"If our school is closed, we won't have a yummy lunch every day. We won't have the best janitor in the world. We won't have the best teachers in the world," read one note from eighth-grader Antone.

In September, the Alaska Superintendents Association passed a similar resolution, saying it supported no change to the minimum number of students necessary to be counted as a school. Such a change would dismantle villages and have a disproportionate impact on rural villages and Natives, the resolution said.

Rep. Lynn Gattis, R-Wasilla, said lawmakers have talked about changing the minimum student count for years and if it comes to a vote in the upcoming legislative session, she'll support the increase as long as it provides options for students whose schools take the financial hit.

"I would vote for it simply because we can't afford not to," Gattis said. "But I would certainly, as part and parcel, want to be sure that parents had those options and knew about those options and they were built in -- whether boarding schools or stipends to go elsewhere."

The minimum student count dates back to 1998, when oil prices dropped and the Legislature decided that schools with fewer than 10 students would face big cuts in state funding. When enrollment hits 10 students, that deploys a base of state funding, which is large enough to operate a school, said Elizabeth Nudelman, finance director for the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development.

Nudelman said under the current funding formula, changing the minimum number of students from 10 to 25 would potentially result in a $5.9 million state aid savings. The education department does not support increasing the minimum student count because the savings are not significant enough to put an undue burden on schools and students, she said.

Rep. Bryce Edgmon, D-Dillingham, said he would oppose any bill that would increase the minimum student count, which he has heard quiet talk about among lawmakers. Edgmon said he received many calls from people worried about the possible change and it may have been "the most evasive concern over the summer and over the fall."

"People are really petrified of this becoming a reality," he said.

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