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An Alaska Solution for Schools

by Paul Ongtooguk

The story being discussed is the article Funding Eludes Neediest Schools, by Rosemary Shinohara, Anchorage Daily News, October 3, 1999, Page B1.

This is a disturbing story about funding inequities for Alaska schools was published by the Anchorage Daily News. The story compared Chevak schools with Creekside Elementary School in Anchorage. The article noted that Creekside Elementary School in Anchorage had been funded for elaborate remodeling, but that Chevak, while condemned as unsafe, had not received any funding from the Legislature for replacement or remodeling. I am a resident in short walking distance from Creekside Elementary School. It is my place of voting. As a former middle and high school educator I can easily agree the facilities seemed outdated. The music room was small and oddly designed and there were no places to conveniently connect computers and other modern tools of education. I am glad Anchorage is updating the facility. I also have recently visited Chevak School and can only describe the condition of the buildings as hazardous. I can say with confidence that for all the outdated aspects of Creekside it was a much better facility in which to teach prior to the remodeling than Chevak school now.

What do I make of all this as an Alaskan?

The State's bond reimbursement policy needs to be reconsidered in order for communities throughout the State to receive equitable funding. Currently, the legislative practice is to fund school construction projects from communities that have the capacity to bond. The reimbursement rates for such projects vary from year to year, but the reimbursement rate tends to be high (60% or better). Further, three pools of money have been established that effectively prioritize the available money in the following order: Anchorage, Fairbanks, every one else. The third category of "every one else" is rarely funded. This policy is in violation of a State statute that establishes a process by which school facility needs are prioritized and funded according to the prioritization. The legislature should be held accountable for following practices that violate the intent of State statute.

But, as Alaska faces the realities of a post-oil economy other solutions to the astronomical costs of school construction must also be considered. For example, I have always thought it would be reasonable for architects to design a set of thermally efficient, relatively simple to maintain, buildings which might be largely constructed in modules for rural areas. In the urban areas, the State should demand a standardization of building designs in order to qualify for any bond reimbursement program. No one should have cause for complaint as the state is after all, picking up the bill.

The heating, plumbing and electrical systems across all school districts in the State should also be standardized, so that each school building does not require a particular set of parts and supplies to maintain. This would reduce the cost of supplies and storage of parts. An additional benefit would be that the technical training of our school maintenance programs could be offered through already established state wide vocational and technical centers. Plans should assume the need to withstand high winds, rain, snow loads and the ability to easily accommodate later construction of additional classroom space as required.

Consider this, if a community wants a sports facility larger than the school library, then that community has to pay 100% of the cost of the additional building. At least we should have to justify school buildings that seem little more than life support systems for sport programs.

In addition I think all Alaskans need to be clear that this is not a rural/urban issue. A change in the bond support system would impact the North Slope Borough as much as any other. I would also like to point out that the issue of buildings which are hazardous to the safety of Alaska students is a constitutional issue, since educating students is a responsibility of the State that is written into the constitution. If the State constitution is going to be treated as sacred text, then the whole document must be treated as such.

This issue should not be about pork barrel. All Alaskans would regret any tragedy resulting from students having to attend school in an unsafe building. The State cannot afford to NOT provide for the education of all f our students. If these children cannot attend a locally available school because some think it is too expensive, than consider the short term fiscal cost of the state for providing a 24 hour, seven days a week, boarding program for Alaskan students. The long term social costs, as the regional boarding schools indicated, are even greater.

We need all of the children of this State to be far better educated than ever to meet the challenge of a post-big oil economy. We can debate the merits of what to include in that education elsewhere. It is embarrassing to even have to argue that all Alaskan students and teachers must be provided with a safe and decent place in which to learn and to teach.