A History of the Nome, Alaska Public Schools:1899 to 1958 From the Gold Rush To Statehood
A Thesis by John Poling
Shortly after the incorporation of the city, the school board directors, Miner Bruce, Colin Beaton, and Dr. J.J. Chambers, met in the latter’s office and discussed the building of three schools, subject both to the funds they would have in the summer and a thorough canvass of the town after the influx of people in the spring. A notice of bids was published, May 2, 1901, for the erection of three separate school buildings to be completed by August 25. The main building was to be large enough to accommodate 200 pupils, and each of the smaller buildings was to have accommodations for 40 pupils. Locations were to be on the sandspit, in the central part of the city, and in the east end.1
When incorporation succeeded, a question arose between the council and the school board as to which had legal control of the school funds. Under the civil code of 1900, liberal provisions for educational purposes were made. From taxes of $10 annually on general businesses, $1500 on saloons, and $2000 on wholesale liquor dealers within municipal corporations, 50 percent was allotted to the school fund. However, the law provided that after necessary school expenses, the surplus could be, by order of the district court, converted into the city treasury for municipal purposes. Compounding the possibility of contention, the city treasurer was also ex-officio treasurer of the school board. The council maintained that all bills contracted by the school board should first be authorized by the council. The school board asserted its legal rights to have complete management of its own affairs. This disagreement stemmed from the uncertain language of the law.2
Refusal of the city treasurer to honor warrants issued by the school board, and failure of the council to honor contracts for construction of the school buildings, resulted in a stoppage of school business transactions from May to November.3 When the city council ordered the city treasurer, as ex-officio treasurer of the school board, to draw warrants in his favor for $50.00 a month, on the school fund, Judge James Wickersham ruled that under the Civil Code of Alaska of July 6, 1900, the school board alone could draw warrants on the school fund, except that under provisions of the Code as amended, March 3, 1901, monies from the fund in excess to the needs of the school budget could be paid over to the city council by order of the district court for use by the city council.4 This ruling started a struggle for control of the local school budget, in a series of lawsuits and changes in statutory law that terminated in the complete loss of fiscal independence by all school boards in the Territory and State of Alaska.5-6
However, the 1901 decision of Judge Wickersham released the funds for the rental of a building for a small one room school on the sandspit for primary children and construction of a larger school on Third Avenue east of Steadman Street, for students in primary, grammar grades, upper grades, and first year of high school. The larger building with four rooms, was 30 x 76 feet and two stories high, furnished with modern desks and appliances, and electric lights. Nearly $3,000 was expended for school books, furniture, and equipment. The building itself cost $9,600. Of the $42,738.26 derived from licenses for school purposes, $30,949.44 was expended for educational purposes, $3,728.38 was kept in the treasury for operational expenses for the balance of the fiscal year, and $7,962.00 was transferred to the city treasury.7
The board report urged Congress to immediately change the law so as to make a specific percentage of the license monies to be turned over to the city treasury for municipal purposes, thereby removing the basis of antagonism between the school board and council inherent in the principle of reversion of left-over school funds to the corporation.8 The suggestion was taken by an amendment, March 2, 1903, to the act of June 6, 1900, as amended March 3, 1901, and provided that all the license monies collected by the clerk of the district court should be turned over to the city treasury, but was "to be used for municipal and school purposes in such proportions as the court may order, but not more than fifty per centum nor less than twenty-five per centum thereof shall be used for school purposes, the remainder thereof to be paid to the treasurer of the corporation for the support of the municipality….".9
The amendment of April 28, 1904, provided that the school board should consist of a director, a treasurer, and a clerk, thereby removing the city treasurer from his dual position of ex-officio treasurer of the school board, but it also provided simply that the license monies paid over to him were "to be used for school and municipal purposes within the town."10
In a later court case, January 7, 1905, the Nome School Board began action in Judge Moore’s district court, at Nome, seeking a writ of mandamus issue against the city council compelling it to turn over to the treasurer of the school board of the Nome school district all monies in the defendant’s hands available for school purposes.11
The school board charged that the common council was dissipating the tax monies collected in the district for school and municipal purposes, endangering the funds necessary to the school budget obligations estimated by the board to be $11,461.20 for the maintenance of the schools for the period beginning October 1, 1904, and ending April 1, 1905. The alternative mandamus alleged that the treasurer of the board, Harry Storey, had been bonded in the amount directed by the common council, but that only $2,000 had been transferred by the city to the board treasurer.12
In the final allegation of facts, the petition stated that the plaintiff did not have "a plain, speedy, and adequate remedy in the ordinary course of law."13
The common council returned the writ, denying that the funds were being dissipated and admitted having on hand a sum of money largely in excess of the amount of the entire school budget. However, the council alleged that it had exercised its discretion in not turning over to the school board treasurer the entire amount of the school budget, which was in excess of the treasurer’s bond of $10,000, quoting section 4, subd. 12, of the act of Congress entitled "An act to amend and codify the laws relating to municipal corporations in the District of Alaska," approved April 28, 1904, c. 1778, 33 Stat. 532.14
The council further alleged that the expenditures of the school board for teachers were excessive and unnecessary to the efficient operation of the schools; that the night school was unwarranted and unnecessary; the janitors were overpaid; and that the treasurer had been paid a salary fixed at $100 per month during the school year without legal authority, as well as large sums for school books and supplies. The council maintained that it had transferred to the board $6,000 since August 22, 1904, in addition to the $2,000 already mentioned.15
The council requested a written opinion of the court to the question:
"Is it within the power of the school board to dictate what constitutes the necessary funds for the maintenance of schools? Or is such power vested in the common council of the municipality of Nome, under the act of April 28, 1904?"16
Judge Moore ruled that the power to dictate the amount of the school district needs was not granted by necessary implication to either the common council nor the school board by the act of 1904, but that Congress evidently meant to leave the power where it was lodged by the act of 1903, "to wit, in the district court whose jurisdiction includes the municipal territory." The court thus reached the conclusion that the plaintiff had not shown a good cause of action, and the mandamus was refused, and the action dismissed.17
The implication of the judgment was clearly that the common council had acted with discretion and could continue to transfer school monies in installments to the school board. If not direct control, it meant that every annual budget planned by the school superintendent and approved by the board could be challenged at pleasure by the city council in whole or in part, in the district court. In effect, the fiscal independence of Alaskan school districts was dead. This was made certain by Section 4 of the Nelson Act of January 27, 1905, which gave to the common council of the incorporated towns power to provide the necessary funds for the schools, without reservation. What the council could provide, it could conversely deny by limitation. L. D. Henderson, the first territorial commissioner of education, evaluated the situation in 1924:
All school boards in Alaska are fiscally dependent. In incorporated towns the common council approves the school budget and has the power to reduce the amount requested for any item. School boards are required by law to render a monthly report of expenditures for school purposes to the common council. Such fiscal dependence is far from sound although it has worked out practically without detriment to the schools due to the fact that in the majority of instances the members of school boards and common councils work in harmony.18
Other schoolmen have found that "harmony" too often was bought at the price of professional futility, school plant obsolescence, and the deterioration of educational standards. The Nome Public School System itself is representative of that truth. Although it was well begun under liberal laws and visionary men, it fell prey to the evils of fiscal dependence from time to time, as it has today.
Dr. Sheldon Jackson’s report of 1902, reflected the advantages of provisions for the support of schools within incorporated towns, in comparison with those under his jurisdiction, and also exposed a critical problem arising from racial discrimination in the "white" towns:
The town of Nome (incorporated) received for school purposes $42,738.26, while only $35,902.41 was received for the 27 public schools outside of incorporated towns. The other incorporated towns also received much larger sums than the schools of corresponding character under control of this office. With these larger sums of money at their disposal they have been able to erect larger and more comfortable buildings, employ a larger number of teachers in proportion to the number of pupils, and pay them better salaries.
Complaints have been received by this office that the school boards of Juneau and Ketchikan (incorporated towns) have refused to receive native children of Indian or Eskimo descent into existing schools or to open school for them. The school board at Nome also neglected during the past year to make provision for the Eskimo children within their limits, although they had a school fund larger than they needed, $7,962.00 of the same being turned back into the city treasury and used for other municipal purposes.19
For the first 47 years of its existence the Nome Public Schools system practiced de facto segregation with regard to Eskimo enrollment. Along with other communities populated principally by white Americans, Nome citizens regarded the native people as uncivilized and unfit culturally for education in their schools. When Senator Knute Nelson, of Minnesota, toured Alaska with a senatorial fact-finding committee in the summer of 1903, he was made aware of the strong feeling directed toward separate schooling for the native population. In the act of Congress of 1905, which bears his name, segregation of native and white schools was written into the law, section 7, stipulating:
That the schools specified and provided for in this Act shall be devoted to the education of white children and the children of mixed blood who lead a civilized life. The education of the Eskimos and Indians in the district of Alaska shall remain under the direction and control of the Secretary of the Interior, and schools for the Eskimos and Indians of Alaska shall be provided for by an annual appropriation, and the Eskimo and Indian children of Alaska shall have the same right to be admitted to any Indian boarding school as the Indian children in the States or Territories of the United States.20
The Nelson Act of 1905, together with the Civil Code of 1900 with its amendments, and the district court decisions previously discussed, formed the framework of the Alaska public school system in white communities until 1917, when the Department of Education of the Territorial government was organized by authority of an act of Congress. Under the Nelson Act, the governor served as ex-officio superintendent of public instruction.21
Because the school funds were not released to the school board by the district court order until November 4, 1901, the high school was constructed in winter under great difficulties. The small bridge school, a rented one room building, on the sandspit across the Snake River bridge, was occupied by the primary pupils, who were taught by Miss Florence Mauzy, and older children attended classes taught by Miss Cora B. Young in the library building on Second Street. As the number of pupils had doubled over that of the previous year, another division was made and a school was opened over the Lobby Saloon on Steadman Avenue for all the pupils east of Hunter’s Way. Miss Mauzy and Mr. J. A. Riley, the first principal, taught here, while Miss Young continued to teach in the library building and Mrs. Alice L. Staples had charge of the Bridge School on the sandspit.22 On moving to the new building, sometime around the first of the year, all the pupils were housed there except Mrs. Staples’s primary class at the Bridge School. In 1905, the Bridge School was discontinued and the pupils from the west end of town were transported by sleigh to the single large school, which remained as the only school building in the Nome Public School system until it was declared obsolete, in 1934, and a new building replaced it in 1935.
The course of study was solid matter. Writing instruction in the primary classes was given on the blackboard and practiced on paper and in copy books, with attention to language usage involving capital letters, the period, comma, paragraphing, sentence building, and composition work.
Appleton’s First Reader and Baldwin’s Second Reader provided reading practice and word lists for spelling and sentence work. The first grade learned addition and subtraction combinations to 12 and reading and writing numbers to 100; the second grade the multiplication tables through the 5’s, counting by 2’s, 3’s and 5’s, and addition and subtraction in easy combinations. The children also learned by memory recitations, quotations, and rules of politeness, as well as lessons in the art of conversation on topics of history and patriotism manners and morals, and kindness to animals. The third grade also studied primary geography. Mrs. Ada M. Whaite, the music teacher, gave them singing lessons.23
Mrs. Staples’s Bridge primary department had an enrollment of three girls and 13 boys in the first and second grades. Miss Mauzy’s primary department in the high school building included the first three grades with a total of nine girls and 25 boys.2 Sitting in the front row in overalls, and with a no-nonsense expression on his face, was the smallest boy in Miss Mauzy’s class, five year old Jimmy Doolittle, beginning the long preparation that would make him a national hero and a lieutenant-general in the United States Air Force.
Miss Young’s grammar department enrolled 15 boys and 18 girls in the fourth and fifth grade levels. The course of study included, in the fourth grade, reading, spelling, writing, arithmetic, history, geography, nature study, music, and English grammar supplemented by reading, dictation, and "reproduction (oral and written)" – which presumably was memorization assignments.24
Professor J. A. Riley taught the principal’s department, numbering 13 girls and 14 boys, including as a supplement to his seventh and eighth grade curriculum a course of first year high school subjects for a few students. In the seventh grade, reading was based on Tom Brown at Rugby and Tom Brown at Oxford and selections from "the best authors." Milne’s Standard Arithmetic and Robinson’s Revised Arithmetic texts were used; Maxwell’s Advanced Grammar and dictation, exercises, short essay writing, and orthography; McMaster’s History of the United States to the Revolution, supplemented by other works; Peterman’s Civil Government, Steele’s Physiology and Hygiene; the Prang elementary drawing course; a full course in music; and geography, completed the program.25
Professor Riley’s geography course was oriented toward Alaska, covering the areas of natural advanced geography, plants and animal life of Alaska, general resources of the country, mining and other industries, ocean currents and their influence on climate, and in the eighth grade, physical geography, including map drawing. The eighth grade program was largely a completion of the seventh grade courses with the addition of bookkeeping and a change in reading to selections from English and American authors, and surveys of Roman and English history. The high school courses offered were algebra, literature, general history, rhetoric, bookkeeping, geometry, Latin, and music.26
Professor Riley’s curriculum exemplified a high quality of educational program for a pioneer school system. He was supported by a board of unusual men, all of them fitted by education and public experience in Alaska to understand the potentials of the free public schools. The educational philosophy of the board was clearly defined in their first report:
The Board would urge further upon Congress the importance of a most liberal law for education in Alaska. The experience of the present Board during the past winter has demonstrated the fact that great good can be accomplished by extending to the public the most liberal educational facilities possible. The long winter, extending over a period of seven months, and the severity of the weather, confine within a small territory a large number of people who are prevented from engaging in any kind of manual labor, and the opportunities for attending school are quickly and eagerly embraced.
The policy of the present School Board has been most liberal in this direction. Early in the winter a night school for adults was inaugurated, which had an attendance of thirty-five pupils of both sexes. A class in bookkeeping, which had an attendance of fifty-three men and women, was in operation most of the winter.
In the large hall of the high school building once each week a literary society has held regular sessions, the School Board furnishing lights and fuel free of cost; and the interest in this direction was so great that the capacity of the hall was not sufficient to accommodate the large number who desired to attend.
Early in January arrangements were made for a series of lectures, to be given in the High School building, upon geology, mineralogy and assaying. The interest felt in these lectures was so great, and the attendance so large, that it is the hope of the Board that the coming year will see inaugurated a special department for instruction in these branches. It should embrace the erection of a building, provided with proper appliances for the study of geology, mineralogy, chemistry and assaying. These appliances should include the best text books procurable, an ample supply of necessary chemicals, and the apparatus for a thorough demonstration of chemistry and assaying.
We believe such an institution will be a valuable acquisition to this part of Alaska. A winter course of study, with competent instructors would equip men with knowledge to prospect this vast region of Alaska intelligently, and perhaps be the means of making valuable discoveries.
There are many settlements in this section of Alaska not large enough to support a municipal form of government, and, consequently, they have no money for the maintenance of public schools. The past winter has demonstrated that as soon as the mining season closes many families will come to Nome each winter in order to take advantage of the excellent school system here established.27
There can be little question that when the school board report was published, it struck a mild epidemic of terror among the rugged economy minded men of business on the city council. The report was presumably written by board member Miner Bruce, who was well known for his History of Alaska and published articles on Alaska.
When the Nelson committee arrived, in July 29, 1903, to hold their hearings in Nome, the senators were particularly interested in correcting the inadequacies of the Territorial educational dilemma. Nome was their first stopping place since leaving Dawson where there were any considerable number of women. The reception was hospitality itself. The formal reception that evening was a dress ball given by the ladies of the "400" in the tastefully decorated Arctic Brotherhood hall, the social center of the leading families of the town. The following evening a banquet for the senatorial party, in the entirely redecorated hall, was attended by one hundred and twenty-five of the important men of the community, again in full dress. Suggestions and requests prepared by the citizens on desired legislation by Congress were formally presented. J. S. McLain, a Minneapolis editor travelling with the committee observed:
The extremely favorable impressions created the previous evening were strengthened by this well-conducted and creditable affair. It is doubtful if anything observed or experienced during the entire trip of the senatorial party did more to promote the interests of Alaska than these social events at Nome, so well calculated to create the most favorable impressions with regard to the character of the people who are developing the resources of the great country, of whose natural wealth the general public has such inadequate knowledge.28
It is reasonable to conjecture that Section 3 of the Nelson Act, which led to the fiscal dependence of school boards, and Section 7, establishing separate school systems for white and native children, were written into the law largely through the influence of the citizens of Nome. As a result of the Act, integration of the two systems in towns was blocked until 1947, when the territorial legislature, under the urging of Governor Ernest Gruening, passed a nondiscrimination act opening public school attendance to all alike.
Certainly the school board was not frugal in meeting the opportunities offered by a brand-new vigorous community, under a favorable system of tax support that was an educator’s dream. A corps of teachers was employed to meet the needs of the children and of the economic base as well. The monthly salaries were set as follows:
J. A. Riley, principal and teacher of the high school class, $250.
Perhaps no other American frontier school had enjoyed such an auspicious beginning, like Pallas Athene springing full-blown from the brow of Zeus. However, the feat could not have been accomplished without a colossal headache.
List of Illustrations
1 - The Nome Public School, circa 1910, built in 1901-19021