A History of the Nome, Alaska Public Schools:1899 to 1958 From the Gold Rush To Statehood
A Thesis by John Poling
School Board, City Council,
Much has been related about the Nome Public School board of education earlier in this history. In every incorporated school district the local school board is the core operational body responsible for maintaining public education, under the state laws, within its jurisdiction. In Alaska, no other local political body has this direct function delegated to it by the State. In his last report as territorial Commissioner of Education, in 1958, Dr. Don M. Dafoe, an able chief school officer, made these selected remarks concerning the local school boards:
One hundred forty men and women make up the school boards in the 28 school districts currently operating. Each of the school districts has a 5 member board which is elected by the people as provided by Territorial law.
The powers and duties of local school boards are set forth by statute and by the Rules and Regulations of the Territorial Board. There is no position in the community which is more important than membership on a local board of education.
The local school board carries out the Territorial program of education within the school district. The powers of local boards are actually only those powers which are delegated specifically by law or by the Territorial Board of Education. However, the local school boards have considerable discretionary authority in matters of local concern so long as such actions do not contravene Territorial law or the Rules and Regulations of the Territorial Board.
City and independent school district boards are fiscally dependent and are required to submit budgets to the city council. The city councils have authority to reduce the total budget amount, but do not have authority to specifically reduce budget items…
The local school board should act as a policy forming body and in a judicial capacity rather than in an executive capacity, formulating and adopting policies and then delegating the execution of such policies to its chief administrator. It should be remembered that the board can only delegate administrative powers and cannot delegate its legislative or judicial powers. The administrator possesses only such authority as is delegated to him by the board.1
Such was the framework under which the local school board functioned in the final year of territorial government, and basically functions today. In the first 58 years of its history, the Nome school board had enrolled a succession of 65 members, 54 men (83%) and 11 women (17%), who had served a cumulative total of 195 years of individual membership. The men gave 140 years of service (71.65%), and women gave a total of 55 years (28.35%), with an average tenure of three years.2
Prior to 1922, Scotty Allan (1906-12) held the longest board membership of six years. However, in 1921, with the election of the Rev. W. F. Baldwin, a Methodist missionary, a remarkable record of school board service by one family began, which terminated in 1956, and encompassed 32 years. Mr. Baldwin was a board member for eight years, when he was succeeded by his wife, who remained in office from 1929 to 1945, sixteen years – the longest membership in the board’s history. In 1948, the Baldwins’ daughter, Helen B. Olsen, was elected for a three year term, followed in 1951, by her brother Robert Baldwin, who served until 1956, when he was appointed by the Governor to the Territorial Board of Education.3
Before 1922, the average length of service for a board member was only two years, reflecting the early changes in school administration from the Bureau of Education to the city, and to the early quarrels with the city council involving fiscal independence. When the fiscal dominance of the council was no longer a legal issue, the average board tenure doubled to four years in the 1922-58 period. In the first 21 years only one woman, Mrs. Sara E. Schofield, was elected to the board (1911). Since 1922, one or more women have sat on the school board, with the exception of the two year period from 1945-47. In 1946, Mr. Charles E. Fagerstrom became the first member from the native community. After four years in office, Mr. Fagerstrom was succeeded by his wife, Helen, who served through the eight years preceding statehood. All successive boards since 1946 have been represented by one or more members of native background.
Other board members whose service has exceeded the average are: Richard L. Morris (1916-21), five years; Mrs. C. C. Crooks, (1922-31), nine years; W. H. Koch (1923-32), nine years; Mrs. Carrie M McLain (1934-40), six years; Almer Rydeen (1935-41), six years; W. J. Dowd (1941-47), six years; and M. B. Young (1952-57), five years.
School boards, like other elected bodies, are intrinsically conservative. Under the supervision of their executive officer, the superintendent, an annual budget is prepared early in the year to be sent to the Commissioner of Education, whose Department of Education budget must anticipate all necessary State commitments for support of the local districts. If the local budget is low, or cut by city council action, State support is automatically reduced on a mathematical formulation. School boards and superintendents are characteristically honest as well as conservative in using the taxpayer’s dollar. When budgets are made, they are carefully pared to represent the actual needs of predicted enrollments, professional staff, plant operation and maintenance, and a margin of growth in educational standards. To neglect any of these areas means systematic degeneration and serious contingent trouble involving the entire community. Yet this process has taken place in cyclic pattern throughout the history of the Nome Public Schools, and elsewhere in Alaska. What is the cause? Let us examine it.
In the early contention over the percentage of license monies that should be shared by the city and the school board, the city was eventually successful in gaining veto power over the annual budget presented by the board, placing the board in a dependent position in fiscal planning. Schools are a public business, and as any competent business management does, the school board becomes thoroughly informed on its business affairs and costs of its educational product. But with an eye on the city council, the board keeps costs to a minimum, avoiding he appearance of budget "padding." Their integrity oddly tends to hurt the schools, as the council rarely trusts the judgment of the board in predicting enrollments, increasing professional staff sufficiently, the costs of estimated maintenance needs, or the necessity of certain experimental innovations aimed at higher standards of education. Although the school and the community lose up to 90% in matching State support funds on budget reductions, the budget is cut by the council to save the comparatively minor percent of local tax dollars, and the board must retard its objectives to conform to the reduction. This phenomenon is styled "fiscal dependence of school boards."
Is the veto function of an intermediary agency necessary on the local school district level? Actually, the State Department of Education also has that prerogative, but historically it is much more liberal in its fund allocations, when properly justified, than local governments. An unsound dual structure creates gratuitous problems. The city council-school board relationship cannot be compared with bicameral governments, where two houses are knowledgeably processing the same legislation. To the contrary, the city council, or in other cases, the borough, acts as a board of review with certain veto powers, for the purpose of limiting their tax support of the educational program to the legal minimum. The predictable result is curtailment of the board’s responsibility for providing maximum efficiency in its purposed duties. Where the board is normally oriented toward the highest standards it can attain for educational development of the school children, the council is self-directed toward a minimum cost maintenance operation. So long as the school institution is existing and not disturbing the city treasury with increased demands, the council will not trouble itself to question the quality of the school system or the quality of its product. But this the school board in good conscience must do. Unfortunately, when the standards of the schools degenerate to the explosion point, the school board, like a pregnant girl, suffers the blame.
In the early years of the Nome Public Schools, as we have seen, all the city needed for its own support was a small ad valorem millage rate on taxable property. The license fees from the district court were more than ample to sustain an independent school system under a regulating board of directors. But the lure of free money for the city induced the struggle for control of the school budget, to the point where council interference in school matters was denounced by editor John F. A. Strong as a usurpation of school board powers.
Any group given power over another is impelled to use it critically, and at least to treat it in such a manner as to nullify any threat to its own security. The holding of discretionary power also places a real or an implied responsibility on those who hold it. The city council normally knows very little about the specific factors in the needs of their school system, but once a year it is their duty to approve or demand modification, largely on trust, of a budget presented by a school board that is closely associated with these factors of school operation and directly responsible for the futurity of the system. The loss of accreditation by Nome High School in 1969, is a direct result of the inadequate community support arising from the dynamics of the system of fiscal dependence on the city council.4
Elsewhere in Alaska the problem has moved into the higher level of borough government, where the annual school budget controversy has become especially bitter. In 1969, the Fairbanks North Star Borough Superintendent of Schools issued a quasi budget figure to the press covering the total needs of the school system based on a survey by the individual school principals of requirements they considered necessary for excellence in their particular schools. The total amounted to a sum in excess of two million dollars of the expected official school board request, causing the community establishment and the Daily News-Miner to react in anger. This was indeed "truth in packaging," and they didn’t like it.5 Yet the Borough Assembly proceeded to reduce the trimmed budget in its customary ritual. In a discussion of fiscal dependence of boards in city school districts, a borough school system superintendent remarked, "In the borough it’s even worse."6 If education in Alaska is to be developed for the requirements of the latter twentieth century, clearly an adjustment in the school support system must be made.
Commissioner of Education William K. Keller, in his report for the 1930-1932 biennium, made the following statement and recommendation:
The city schools are now fiscally dependent upon the city councils. This is contrary to sound educational policies. The schools should be fiscally independent of all governing bodies except the Territorial Legislature. Steps should be taken to separate city and school government by making the school boards in city districts independent of the city council in matters of school finance.7
Dr. Keller commented further that, "It is interesting to note that every expansion of the school system since its inception has resulted in a 100% charge of the cost of such expansion to the Territory, instead of a reasonable proportion being charged to the community affected."8
Since 1932, the tendency of able communities to relinquish their basic responsibility for a large share of the support of local education has grown to the point where they no longer expect to bear it. The past hope of local school board fiscal independence based on the board as a local taxing unit was made generally impossible by the provision of the State Constitution, Article X, Sec. 2., that "the State may delegate taxing powers to organized boroughs and cities only."9 However, the preeminence of the State over public education is to be inferred from Article VII, Sec. 1., providing that "the legislature shall by general law establish and maintain a system of public schools open to all children of the State, and may provide for other public educational institutions…"10
Therefore, every public school in Alaska is the direct responsibility of the State as a unit in the State school system. Why should not the Legislature by an Act assume the complete fiscal responsibility for the schools, operating under the Department of Education with the locally elected school boards as the single local controlling agency of educational policy at the city or borough level. Under such a proposal all school property should also be the property of the State. Working directly with the State Department of Education, the local school board would be reasonably assured of a budget large enough to preclude the accumulation of large deficiencies in maintenance of plant and educational programming. The school board would be able to work within a framework of freedom never known before, with the assurance that the State of Alaska would not let the local schools fall below the level of acceptance for annual accreditation. Relieved of all official connections by the board for policies, planning, administration, and funding, the city or borough governments might be of benefit to education by exercising pressure on the State Department of Education and the Legislature for better schools and larger budgets in their areas. It would indeed be a new shoe on a new foot.11