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Anchorage Daily News
Sunday, October 03, 1999, Page B1, Metro


By Rosemary Shinohara, Daily News Reporter

Illustrated By Charles Atkins

At Chevak School in Western Alaska, student desks sit so close together that if one child gets up to go to the bathroom, an entire row must stand and move. Three hundred students are crammed inside an old wood-frame building that was designed for half as many kids.

Maintenance workers constantly shore up the structure. They jack up portions of the building that have shifted, remove dry rot and replace parts of the floor. In 1996 an architect declared the building too hazardous to occupy.

At Pilot Station to the north, human waste regularly covers the school grounds when the Yukon River overflows and floods the sewage lagoon. Most of the village moved to higher ground, but the old school built by the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs decades ago remains, its structural supports rotting from the flood waters. Chevak and Pilot Station made the state's list as two of the worst schools in Alaska. The state Department of Education regularly ranks schools most in need of repair and, in some cases, replacement. Of the 10 most in need of replacement or additions in 1998, nine were rural schools. Only one, Talkeetna, was in an urban district.

But the most needy schools don't necessarily get the money.

While urban schools in better condition have received state funding for replacement or repairs-- Creekside Park, Baxter and Ocean View elementary schools in Anchorage, for example --Chevak and Pilot Station have not received any state construction funds except planning money in several years. They both annually request the funds to replace their schools.

Last month, an Anchorage judge declared the state's system of funding inadequate and discriminatory. That has generated heated debate among legislators over what to do.

Rep. Gail Phillips, R-Homer, disagrees with the judge's ruling.

The Legislature is looking after the building needs of both rural and urban students and follows the state's priority list for helping the schools that need it the most, she said.

But the state just doesn't have enough money, said Phillips, who sits on an interim committee on school construction. "We have tiny bits of money and try to use it as well as we can."

"We used to have $300 million to $350 million a year" for capital projects of all types, she said. That was in the early 1990s.

"Right now, we're down to $85 million a year, and that's basically to match federal dollars coming in," she said.

The judge didn't have enough information to determine that the state treats rural students unfairly, she said.

Chevak, the worst school in the state, has been passed over while other schools received state money for additions or repairs. Chevak is requesting $25 million to replace its school. It has300 students and expects to grow.

Phillips said Chevak is an anomaly.

"The cost is so high compared to the cost of other schools," she said. In Homer, she said, "we built exactly the same size school for $11 million."

But the two schools can't fairly be compared, said Eddy Jeans, state manager of school finance." They're totally different. Homer's on the road system," Jeans said. "It has the work force to build a school. Chevak doesn't."

Building in Chevak is more expensive than at other rural sites because everything comes in through its dock, said Chevak Superintendent Pam VanWechel.

Materials have to be unloaded from big barges to smaller barges and then to the dock, she said.

Jeans said the state has scrutinized Chevak building costs over and over again and is confident the estimates are accurate.

The high cost of building a new Chevak school is partly responsible for the decision by legislators not to fund it or other projects lower on the list, some lawmakers say.

Sen. Gary Wilken, R-Fairbanks, questions whether the state can afford spending $25 million for 300 students.

"The Chevak school is the cork in the bottle," he said.

The state has spent $1.4 billion, or 82 percent of its school construction money, on city and borough school buildings over the past 20 years, state records show. That compares with $303million on schools not in organized boroughs and cities.

It's not clear exactly how much is spent on urban vs. rural districts because some cities and boroughs are in rural areas, like the North Slope Borough. But most of the rural districts, what ever their classification, lack a tax base and money of their own to build and maintain schools.

Further, the state reimburses up to 70 percent of the cost to build and repair schools in districts that sell bonds. Anchorage has financed a massive school building program for the past five years, with much of the cost being picked up by the state.

Consequently, urban schools don't deteriorate as badly as rural schools that are unable to sell bonds.

The Legislature, which appropriates money for school construction, adjourned this year without appropriating money for schools at the top of the state's priority list. Gov. Tony Knowles then asked legislators to join state administrators on an interim committee to review school construction funding.

The state has two methods of paying for school construction -- grants to school districts for particular projects, and reimbursement to city and borough districts for voter-approved construction bonds.

Rural districts without property taxes rely solely on state grants, which are supposed to be awarded according to the priority list.

Both funding methods pose problems, said Anchorage School Board member Kathi Gillespie, who works on legislative matters for the board.

Several years ago, when the state had no program to reimburse bond debt, Anchorage and other major urban areas had trouble getting state money for projects, Gillespie said.

"Our projects were in competition with Bush projects" and never made it high enough on the priority list, she said. "The railbelt areas were getting the short end of the stick."

But rural schools need help, Gillespie said. "I think (Anchorage has) gotten an adequate amount," she said. "I think there's been a discrepancy in how the rural areas were funded. Have we gotten too much? No. Have they gotten

enough? No."

The state's new interim committee on school construction has met twice, including just before the recent special session.

Education Commissioner Rick Cross said the state's system of establishing priorities based on safety, crowding and other criteria is fair. But, he said, "a steady stream of funding has to come along. I think the committee still wants to work in that direction."

The Chevak district, Kashunamiut, is one of the six rural districts that sued the state two years ago over construction funding. A group of parents and citizen groups also joined the suit.

Anchorage Superior Court Judge John Reese ruled last month that the state discriminates against rural students by spending a disproportionate share of construction money on city schools. He has yet to issue orders on how to fix the problem.

Meanwhile, the Chevak district grows yearly along with the cost to house its students, VanWechel said.

"This situation presents a classic case of a tragedy waiting to happen" because of crowding and fire danger, Anchorage architect Jonathan Kumin said in an analysis of the building's needs.

But the town continues to use the school.

"It's the only school we've got," VanWechel said.


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