HCN: Why the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge may not be drilled

Alaska, Beyond Alaska, News, Online, Print, Uncategorized

This story originally published in High Country News.

Every summer, the Porcupine caribou herd travels hundreds of miles to return to the northernmost edge of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge on Alaska’s North Slope. There, on the coastal plain known as Area 1002, the cows give birth to calves, and the animals forage for food and huddle together against the swarms of mosquitoes.

The caribou are protected, almost, by the 1980 Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, which granted federal protection to more than a quarter of Alaska’s 375 million acres, including the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Most of the nearly 20-million-acre refuge was designated as wilderness, but the coastal plain was set aside for oil and gas development, if and when Congress approved it. Since then, politicians have batted the issue back and forth, neither fully protecting the region or opening it up. Last month, though, the Trump administration opened the entire 1.56 million acres of the 1002 for leasing, removing the last regulatory hurdle to the prospect of well pads, roads and pipelines in the calving grounds and setting the stage for the exploitation of one of the conservation movement’s most important sites.

The fate of the area, and the caribou that depend on it, is not yet sealed, however. Before drill rigs can move in, developers must overcome other legal and political challenges, along with an increasingly uncertain petroleum economy and the possibility of a new presidential administration.

The latest obstacle was thrown up on Sept. 9, when 15 state governments in the Lower 48 and three Alaska tribal entities south of the Refuge — Native Village of Venetie Tribal Government, Arctic Village Council and Venetie Village Council — all took separate legal action against the federal government to try to stop the lease sale. That’s in addition to other lawsuits filed last month by the Gwich’in Steering Committee — which advocates for 15 Gwich’in communities in Alaska and Canada — with 12 other environmental organizations, and another from a coalition of conservation groups. “We used to migrate alongside (the caribou) for over 40,000 years,” Bernadette Demientieff, executive director of the Steering Committee, said in an interview. “We can’t survive without them.” The Gwich’in Steering Committee was formed in 1988 in response to proposals to drill in the herd’s calving grounds. With the help of other conservation groups, the Gwich’in managed to convince major banks — including Wells Fargo, Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan Chase — to curtail or ban investment in fossil fuel projects in Alaska, a serious matter for an industry still reeling from low oil prices.

Even if the conservationists’ legal and political challenges fail, petroleum companies will have to decide whether developing the coastal plain is worth it. Oil prices have been relatively low for the last five years, and new drilling techniques have opened up huge, more appealing reserves in shale formations in the Lower 48.

The oil industry’s longtime “holy grail” — drilling the Arctic Refuge — is no longer quite as alluring, said Philip Wight, a professor specializing in Arctic energy history at University of Alaska Fairbanks. The industry is transforming, and arguments for drilling in ANWR to supercharge revenues for Alaska simply don’t pencil out, he said.

The Trump presidency and its Republican-led Congress gave Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, the opportunity to insert a provision approving a lease sale into the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act.

Nevertheless, the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act initiated an environmental analysis of exploration and development possibilities, which wrapped up this August, when Interior Secretary David Bernhardt signed the record of decision setting the first lease sale of the 1002 for late 2021. But a new president could reverse the approval: A campaign spokesman told the Associated Press last month that Joseph Biden seeks to “permanently protect ANWR and other areas impacted by President Trump’s attacks on federal lands and waters.” A new president could use the Antiquities Act to declare the coastal plain a national monument, permanently halting the lease sale. “There is just so much that changed to make this happen that can change completely with the next administration,” Siqiñiq Maupin, Arctic community organizer for Native Movement and the director of Sovereign Inupiaq for a Living Arctic, said in an interview.

Given all the political and economic uncertainties, drilling in the Arctic may simply be too risky for companies today. For now, the fate of the Porcupine caribou lies in the invisible hand of the market, buffeted by political changes that are hard to predict. Guessing what the world is going to look like in the 2030s and beyond is a “substantial risk,” Larry Persily, the former federal coordinator for gas projects in Alaska, said. “You cannot hold on (to a lease) for 20 years in speculation. If you don’t do something, you won’t make the money back. That’s a lot of crystal ball work.”

HCN: Essential transportation in rural Alaska is up in the air

Alaska, Beyond Alaska, News, Online, Uncategorized

This story originally published in High Country News.

In July, Megan Dean, preparing to give birth to her first child, needed a ride to a doctor’s appointment. It wouldn’t be easy: Dean lives in Unalaska, on the Aleutian Archipelago, 800 miles from the nearest obstetrician. Much of the 4,800-person town sits at the base of hillsides emerging from the Bering Sea, and with no roads connecting it to other communities, boats and planes are the only ways in and out.

Last year, Dean, who works at the Museum of the Aleutians, could have taken one of several direct daily flights to Anchorage. But this April, Alaska’s largest regional airline, Ravn Air, abruptly declared bankruptcy and closed, citing coronavirus-related revenue losses. That left Dean with limited options. To get to Anchorage now, she scours a community Facebook group for charter planes offering last-minute seats. At $675, the one she booked in July cost $224 more than the Ravn Air flight she took in March. (Her insurance covers the plane ride.) “It’s a crazy time to be pregnant and have a baby, especially when you don’t live on the road system,” Dean said. “It just feels like an extra sense of disconnect.” 

With many communities lacking publicly funded roads or railways and a state ferry system facing uncertainty due to budget cuts, thousands of Alaskans rely on private airlines for everything from groceries and mail to doctor’s visits. Now, Unalaska and other roadless communities are tapping a federal program to lure airline companies and organizing groups to coordinate charter flights, while waiting to see if Ravn’s new buyers — a Los Angeles-based company — will restore critically needed transportation.

In Alaska, 82% of communities are not accessible by road. As a result, the state-funded fleet of ferries known as the Alaska Marine Highway System has been a lifeline for many coastal towns. In Unalaska, for example, the ferry visited eight to 10 times annually in recent years. But this year, due to deep budget cuts pushed by Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy, the ferry will make only four trips. That’s left residents largely dependent on private transportation — in particular, commercial flights. Until it closed, Ravn Air operated 400 flights a day to more than 115 communities across the state.

The airline’s sudden closure has caused affected seafood industry workers who need to reach Unalaska’s Dutch Harbor, the nation’s busiest fishing port, as well as residents like Dean trying to get to Anchorage’s hospital. “The community has missed doctor appointments even when we had daily scheduled service,” said Erin Reinders, Unalaska’s city manager. Now, the only non-charter option leaves just twice a week, and it’s not direct, which increases the risk of weather delays. “(That) can really make or break a whole trip.”

Officials in Unalaska submitted a request to the federal Essential Air Service program, which was designed to provide rural communities with adequate passenger service. After the U.S. airline industry was deregulated in 1978, the program was established to subsidize companies serving remote towns that were otherwise unprofitable. This is particularly important in Alaska: About a third of the 168 communities receiving these flights are located here. “In most places, you can get in your car and in a couple hours get to a substantial airport, but in Alaska, not so much,” said Richard Sewell, an aviation policy planner with the Alaska Department of Transportation. As of April 2020, private airlines in Alaska will receive more than $26 million in subsidies.

The program would bring six flights a week to Unalaska during its busiest season. By the beginning of August, two companies had submitted proposals, which will be subject to public comment before a contract is awarded.

Some airlines plan to boost their operations and serve Unalaska and the Aleutians even without Essential Air Service contracts. One, FLOAT Shuttle, was awarded Ravn Air’s core assets in bankruptcy court in July and is rebranding itself the “New Ravn.” The company previously operated in Southern California, flying commuters above hectic traffic, but it has now moved some of its executive team north, where many already have aviation experience. “We saw this as an opportunity to continue a service that is needed and wanted,” said Rob McKinney, FLOAT’s co-founder. At least one other company, a Southeast Alaska airline, Alaska Seaplanes, thinks it can do a better job, calling FLOAT Shuttle “woefully unproven” in a late July press release announcing that it also intends to bring air service to Unalaska.

But the future of flight in Unalaska may not be private at all. Mark Horne, a resident of Unalaska for the last 30 years, launched a travel co-op membership drive in July. The plan would guarantee reasonably priced charter flights using an online booking system: Members would pay for their portion of the contracted charter, and if the plane doesn’t reach the destination, the passengers pay nothing. The co-op, however, is a work in progress: It has nearly 500 members now, but Horne estimates he needs 10 times that number to get it off the ground. Still, Horne hopes something happens to make booking a plane ticket a little easier. “Travel has always been a pain out here,” Horne said. “(We’ve) got to do something better.”

$30 million school construction bond pushed to 2021

Alaska, News, Print, Uncategorized

This story originally published in the Peninsula Clarion.

A proposed $30 million bond package to fix the Kenai Peninsula’s aging school buildings will be pushed to next year’s ballot.

The Kenai Peninsula Borough School District and the Board of Education had pushed for the bond to be placed on this October’s municipal election ballot, and formally asked the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly at the Feb. 4 school board meeting to place the proposal on the ballot.

However, due to concerns with the COVID-19 pandemic, the borough and the district have agreed to push the bond off until the October 2021 election, Dave Jones, assistant superintendent for the district, said during a presentation at the June 2 assembly meeting.

“Our buildings are past the life that they were built to have,” Jones said at the assembly meeting. “We have a lot of work that needs to be done to bring them up to speed and to extend their lives longer.”

Jones said borough and district both agreed that because of the pandemic “the bond would fail.”

“Before COVID I think that was going to be a successful bond issue,” Jones said at the assembly meeting. “After COVID I think everybody has agreed with the consensus ‘if we put that bond issue out there it would fail.’”

The $29,940,000 bond proposal tackles 19 school projects that are considered a “priority and critical to maintaining key infrastructure for both community and educational needs,” a Feb. 4 school board resolution said.

About a quarter of the district’s schools are 50 years or older, while 80% of schools are more than 30 years old.

Identified projects span across the peninsula. There are two districtwide projects, one of which will address aged technology to ensure the “security challenges schools face today” and upgrade building automation controls to prevent system failures and reliable heating systems.

Building control systems are outdated and have “exceeded their useful life” at Kenai Central High School, Skyview Middle School and Nikiski Middle/High School, a Feb. 4 school board resolution said.

The exterior building envelope is failing at Chapman Elementary, Cooper Landing, West Homer Elementary, Nanwalek, Sterling Elementary and Tebughna School. Repair of the building envelope will extend the life of the facilities and reduce energy consumption, the resolution said.

Roofs at Homer High School and Nikiski North Star Elementary have reached the end of their useful life, the resolution said.

The biggest project will be the construction of a new school in Kachemak Selo, which will take advantage of more than $10 million in state funds, if the state will grant a deadline extension. Currently, the grant has a deadline of June 2021. District administration said they have reached out to the Department of Education and Early Development to see if the grant can be extended.

Educational improvement projects are needed at Kenai Middle School and Nanwalek School “to more adequately serve the student population,” the resolution said. According to the list of bond projects, these projects will replace failing windows at Nanwalek and enlarge the kitchens at Kenai Middle School and Nanwalek.

On the southern peninsula, the boiler and controls at Ninilchik School need to be replaced to provide for “efficiency and reliability,” the resolution said.

On the eastern peninsula, one project will address seismic repair for damage Seward Middle School sustained during an earthquake, which will “preserve the building integrity.”

Next year, the assembly will have the opportunity to place the bond package on the October 2021 ballot.

‘Everyone is learning a new way to learn’

Alaska, News, Print, Uncategorized

This story published in the Peninsula Clarion.

For Kenai Central High School junior Rileigh Pace, life has changed “a lot” since the transition from the physical classroom to emergency remote learning.

She takes classes like U.S. history, trigonometry, honors language arts, anatomy and physiology and ceramics online using a computer she’s set up on a small desk in the corner of her bedroom. It’s a quieter space than her family’s dinner table, she said.

Pace is just one of the more than 8,000 students in the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District who have had to shift to home-schooling due to state-mandated school closures, which have shut students off from school sites across the state for the rest of the academic year.

The closures came suddenly for Alaskans in mid-March, as students were enjoying spring break. Districts across the country are grappling with the unprecedented shift to emergency remote learning. Across the U.S., states have closed schools, impacting at least 55 million children, according to Education Week.

On the Kenai Peninsula, students in the district returned to school March 30 to remote learning. District staff had two weeks to plan for distance delivery, Pegge Erkeneff, district communications director, said in an email.

“Everyone is learning a new way to learn,” Erkeneff said.

To make the remote learning shift, the district first focused on connecting with parents to explain the plan for distance learning and to understand each family’s situation, John Pothast, director of innovation and strategic planning for the district, said in an email. Next, teachers were asked to focus on the content they teach and determine how they could teach it from afar, which included training on how those lessons could be delivered remotely.

Pothast said the district “developed and delivered” more than 260 live, video training sessions for educators. The videos were saved and teachers have access to those training sessions.

The training sought to show teachers how to develop a virtual classroom, deliver instruction and materials to students online, how to effectively communicate with students and parents, best practices for working from home and learning from home and how to make materials available for families without access to online technology, Pothast said.

With the shift to online learning during an economic and public health crisis, the metrics for student success have also changed. Pothast said the primary definition for student success looks like students connecting with teachers and engaging with assigned activities.

Erkeneff said the district has a “do no harm mindset for grading,” and students won’t see their grades drop based on where they were, but will be given the opportunity to improve their grade based on “engagement and involvement in class.”

“Teachers have never taught like this before, on this scale,” Pothast said. “Likewise, students and families have never learned like this before, at this scale. Moving to remote learning in a matter of days is a significant shift for everyone; for teachers, students and families alike. And there are high levels of anxiety, for teachers, students and families.”

The district is addressing equity concerns among students by falling back on their practice of personalized learning — which, like its name suggests, is education tailored to each student’s needs. The learning strategy has been in use for years across the district, and is helping teachers take into consideration the types of learners students will be from afar.

“(The district) is ensuring that all students have equitable access to their teaching and learning, and find success, in this remote learning environment — not because any law compels us to, but instead because it is the right thing to do for every one of our students,” Pothast said.

For students who lack access to the internet, teachers are making accommodations with physical assignments, Erkeneff, said.

Melissa Nill, a special education intensive needs teacher in her first year at Kenai Central, said remote learning is “very challenging” for her classroom because most of her students’ learning required one-on-one support. Nill said she has “an amazing group of paraprofessional educators” to assist her in maintaining that one-on-one support. Nill said some of her students also do not have access to the internet.

This support looks like frequent calls with students and parents, where Nill and her staff make themselves available to help however they can, from afar. Nill said most of her students’ work is assigned offline. Each student is unique, and has different learning requirements, Nill said.

“I don’t deny having had a cry or two over how I was going to do this, but for me, the adventure continues and if I can do this, I can do anything,” Nill said.

Meredith McCullough is a 10th grade English and history teacher at Kenai Central. She said the transition to distance learning has been “fairly smooth.” She teaches Advanced Placement courses, which conclude in a test students across the nation can take to potentially count toward college credits. With the test up in the air, McCullough said her students are continuing to chip away at the work and prepare for the assessment anyway.

Jean Beck, a fifth grade teacher at Seward Elementary, has been practicing “blended learning” since the beginning of the year, which is a mix of online and in-person student instruction. She said “flexible content” from personalized learning is a “highly used element” in her classroom.

“I accommodate specific learners in my class, so I have arranged separate, but similar and attainable work for them during our distance learning,” Beck said. “The benefits are plain and clear: I am confident of my students’ abilities. They are savvy in the tools that we use and I wasn’t worried that they weren’t going to be able to figure out new ones that were introduced.”

To accommodate every student, the district made hundreds of Chromebook computers available to students who needed access to their virtual classrooms. Erkeneff said the district checked out 700 Chromebooks with a request for more on the way.

Pace said her family needed to check out a district Chromebook for her younger brother. She said her household had two computers, but three people who needed to work online because of closures caused by the global pandemic.

Families stuck at home

The need for parental input is greater than ever with students at home, Nill said. But balancing that need without adding more stress to parents’ plates can be tricky.
“I worry that daily contact is more of a burden than a help to my parents, but I want to be sure my parents and students know I am here for them, and try to offer as much help as I can,” Nill said.

Abigail Moffett, another junior at Kenai Central, said she can sometimes get distracted by other family members stuck at home when she should be focusing on online school. She said her emergency remote classes feel similar to other online classes she’s taken. However, she noticed her current teachers didn’t have as much time to prepare their virtual classrooms.

“Most of my teachers now didn’t have as much time to prepare so they are still trying to figure out things like class discussions and what to do about testing,” Moffett said. “I also communicate with my teachers differently. I’ve been using phone calls and Zoom meetings recently, whereas I used email to communicate with my previous online teachers.”

Being stuck at home has its perks. Moffett said she’s been enjoying more time with her family, the ability to sleep in and having time to cook her own breakfast and lunch.
Pace said students need to have the right mindset for online learning. She said the biggest drawback to online learning is how easy it is to fall behind on work and procrastinate.

Pace has taken online classes set up by the district and Kenai Peninsula College. She said she’s noticed her new classes are “significantly easier,” than her previous online classes. Her classes have the same objectives set at the beginning of the semester, but the material and assignments are “much easier.”

McCullough said the greatest disadvantage to the remote learning mode is the isolation people across the country are facing because of social distancing orders.

“Before all of this happened, I was blessed to see my students every school day,” McCullough said. “Not having them in the building, not being able to see them consistently, has been so difficult because they are the best part of this job. The first time I was able to video chat with my (AP world history) students, I ended up crying afterward because it was so nice to see their faces and hear their voices.”

McCullough said many of her students have mentioned they “miss their friends, their teachers, and the support staff who were a daily part of their lives.”
Bored at home

Pace, like other students, is missing the social aspects of school. She found out schools would be closing during a regional basketball tournament in Anchorage. This season, Pace was named captain of the Kenai basketball cheer team.

“It was so sad when we found out (the state cheer competition) was canceled because we worked hard all season to compete in it,” Pace said. “I do miss going to school. I definitely miss seeing my friends and teachers. It’s hard to spend your whole week with friends and then one day it’s just gone and you have to stay home all day … At first you think the change is fine and will be fixed soon but by now it’s gotten very boring.”

Moffett said she misses the little things about school, like socializing in the hallways between class and during lunch.

“My social life has definitely taken a hit with remote learning because I talk to most of my friends at school and I’m not great at communicating over social media,” Moffett said. “I miss being able to talk face to face with people, and I miss being able to walk around between classes. When all of my classes are online, I just sit at the computer and flip through them. I don’t move as much as I should.”

A post-coronavirus world

Many juniors and seniors begin to flesh out their plans for life after high school — whether that means going to college or a trade school or entering the workforce. However, some students are seeing the pandemic change their plans.

Pace said preparing for college during a pandemic is “stressful.” She was supposed to take the SAT test at the end of March, but it was postponed until June. However, some colleges are saying they may waive SAT and ACT application requirements, due to the pandemic.

“Right now, I’m supposed to be looking for colleges and starting to apply soon, and without taking this test, I’m not quite sure what will happen,” Pace said.

For Moffett, the global pandemic has helped solidify her dream of becoming a doctor. “If anything, this pandemic has strengthened my desire to go into the medical field,” Moffett said.

Moffett said she is “a little concerned” about whether or not fall sports will take place.
“I was looking forward to spending one last year on a team with my friends,” Moffett said.

Looking ahead for the district, Erkeneff said the district is still fully immersed in assisting teachers, students, parents and staff with providing student education and meals.

Initial conversations about “post-crisis learning and recovery” are just beginning, Erkeneff said.

Educators raise concerns about virtual school contract

Alaska, Education, News, Print, Uncategorized

This story originally published in the Peninsula Clarion.

Local education officials expressed concern and surprise after the state announced March 31 it had entered into a half-million dollar contract with an online public school based in Florida.

In mid-March, Gov. Mike Dunleavy ordered schools to close to “non-contact days” — which prohibited students from being in a school building.

Department of Education and Early Development Commissioner Michael Johnson said that’s when his team sought to do business with Florida Virtual School. A public online school that began in the 1990s, will offer courses for students from kindergarten through grade 12.

The school recently came under fire from Florida’s education department for accusations that the organization’s leadership was at fault for improper behavior and spending, according to a November 2019 article from the Orlando Sentinel.

At Monday’s Kenai Peninsula Borough School District Board of Education meeting, school board member Virginia Morgan said she was “shocked” when she heard about the Florida Virtual School agreement. She said she would also like to see the board encourage the state to contract with Alaska educators.

“We have teachers who are capable and qualified to offer online education and some were already doing so before this pandemic,” she said at the meeting.

Dave Brighton, president of the Kenai Peninsula Education Association, asked the board to take a position against the state’s contract with the Florida Virtual school. Brighton said he was “disheartened to see that our governor wanted to spend money outside of our community.”

“I just think it’s really sad to see half a million dollars leave Alaska when what we really need is to keep money in our state, in our communities to support our economy,” Brighton said at the meeting. “We work hard here in Alaska, we’re culturally relevant to our students here in Alaska, which in many ways are very unique. We don’t need to spend money Outside trying to look for what we’re doing here.”

Johnson said in an April 6 email that the state’s education department wanted to give Alaska districts another option for their emergency remote instruction. Districts are not required to use the school’s programs, which cost the state $525,000.

“Every educator in the state started working on ways to solve the challenges we knew we would face over the coming weeks,” Johnson said. “We knew there would be places in Alaska where educators would need assistance in offering the content needed to support learning for students at many grade levels and content areas.”

Johnson also called into the school board meeting, which was operating virtually, to speak to the board about the state’s efforts in transitioning districts to emergency remote learning. Johnson said the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District is “doing a fantastic job for students” and is “setting a high bar for districts around the state.”

He discussed the state’s new contract with the Florida Virtual School and said the intention for the virtual school is for districts to use it for free if they need the extra content. He said the department has no expectation for the school and it is not mandatory for districts to participate in its program.

The department wanted districts to have “options,” he said. Right now, the department is working on sending out “a few hundred” pre-filled iPads to the state’s “most remote and smallest schools.”
He said educators can visit AKLearns.org to learn more.

He said in a small school, a teacher might have several grade levels and dozens of classes to teach. Transitioning to a remote learning model overnight, and still offering everything for every student, is “nearly impossible,” Johnson said.

Johnson said offering free virtual classes was one option the department could provide to support state districts at “no cost to small schools facing capacity issues.”
Johnson said the virtual school also offers families more options.

“We have also discovered that some families are concerned about their students being prepared for next year, so they are choosing virtual school coursework to extend learning for their children,” Johnson said. “Virtual school classes are simply one more option from which to choose.”

Trends: Tourism industry takes hit from COVID-19

Alaska, News, Print, Uncategorized

This story originally published in the Peninsula Clarion.

Local restaurateurs, hotel owners and tour operators are feeling uncertain about the 2020 tourism season, which normally begins at the end of April in Alaska.

The 2020 summer season is a major concern for the Kenai Peninsula Tourism Marketing Council, Executive Director Debbie Speakman said.

She said hotels and lodges have already seen cancellations and a standstill in bookings has business owners worried about their summer season. Speakman said the industry is encouraging travelers to postpone their trips rather than cancel altogether.

Mike Flores owns four tourism companies, Ninilchik Charters, Seward Fishing Club, Alaska Destinations and Soaring Eagle Lodge. He said some of his customers have already moved their trips up to 2021. He said he doesn’t plan on laying off any staff.
“Even if we’re not fishing, we have other work,” Flores said.

He’s waiting until April 25 to make a decision on whether or not he limits operations in May and June. Despite all this, Flores said he’s still hopeful.

Speakman and others all said they’ve noticed guests holding out for a trip later in the summer. They have noticed people aren’t canceling trips later in the summer, like in late July and August. Flores said at his lodge, guests who booked in late summer are “holding tight” to their reservations.

This summer, tourism businesses on the Kenai Peninsula will have an additional hurdle to overcome, with many local businesses hoping to bounce back after the 2019 Swan Lake Fire interrupted traffic to the peninsula and filled communities with smoke during peak tourism season.

“My big fear for our area is — last year we had a fire and cancellations, so people are already at 50 percent,” Speakman said. “They could still pay their employees. Now compound (this global pandemic). My fear is that a lot of people may not recover. I’m afraid a lot of people will not be able to weather the storm.”

Flores said the Swan Lake Fire “threw us into the red” more than $200,000.

“We stomached the loss, but now we may have more losses (this summer),” Flores said.
Flores submitted paperwork for disaster assistance to the Small Business Administration this week.

“We’re going to need assistance to stay afloat,” he said.

A large part of Alaska’s tourism industry is the cruise industry, which brings a million visitors to the state every year, Speakman said. Cruise ships would normally begin filling the small towns of Southeast Alaska at the end of April. On the peninsula, Seward was expecting its first ship to dock May 5 and in Homer May 12.

Citing concerns about COVID-19, Canada has closed all of its ports to cruises until July. Many Alaska cruises begin at the Seattle Port, which announced an indefinite closure of the port to cruises on Tuesday.

“The Port now expects the launch of the cruise season will be delayed until the resolution of the public health emergency,” a March 24 release from the port said.

Borough budget to take hit

Alaska, News, Print, Uncategorized

This story published in the Peninsula Clarion.

Springtime is a time for local governments to work on the next year’s budget, and despite a global pandemic, the Kenai Peninsula Borough staff is working on the fiscal year 2021 budget.

Mayor Charlie Pierce — who has quarantined himself at home since arriving in Alaska after an out-of-state trip a week ago — told the Clarion Thursday that the borough’s budget will take an “unanticipated hit” because of the new coronavirus.

Pierce said his administration is evaluating what impacts COVID-19 will have. Pierce said the borough could experience a 30-60% “negative impact” in sales tax revenue because of the global pandemic. He said the borough is in the process of developing better projections as information becomes available.

Over the last several years, Pierce said there’s been a “considerable amount of effort” to contain costs in the borough to bring the budget down. He said the borough is currently sitting on approximately $26.9 million in fund balance. That number could drop to $16 million by the end of next fiscal year, he said.

Borough staff are working from home and those in the office are practicing guidelines from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, including keeping desks physically 6 feet apart and sanitizing surfaces, Pierce said.

Pierce said he hopes the state can come through with a stimulus package and encouraged people to be patient and follow rules set in place by the CDC and state government.

“It’s not worth picking up exposure to (COVID-19),” Pierce said. “Stay hunkered down until health care providers give indication it’s safe. This could be an extended and lengthy shutdown.”

Residents have to rely on each other, friends and neighbors, Pierce said.
“These are trying times,” Pierce said. “It’s very challenging for all of us.”

Alaska reports 1st coronavirus case; schools, universities extend breaks

Alaska, News, Print, Uncategorized

This story originally published in the Peninsula Clarion.

As Gov. Mike Dunleavy announced the state’s first case of COVID-19 — a disease caused by a coronavirus that emerged in late 2019 in China — the University of Alaska system and Kenai Peninsula Borough School District both announced Thursday that they would be extending their spring break by another week.

All 42 schools on the Kenai Peninsula will be closed between March 16-20, “to assist with flattening the infection curve, social distancing, and slowing the COVID-19 spread in our diverse communities,” a press release from the district said.

District staff will receive an update about when to report to work by the end of the day Friday. Updates about the district’s response to the new coronavirus can be found on their dedicated district webpage at http://www.kpbsd.k12.ak.us.

The University of Alaska system announced a series of measures in response to COVID-19, including extending spring break by another week, suspending in-person classes and asking resident students to vacate student housing.

Spring break is being extended one week and classes will resume March 23, with most courses being offered through “alternative” methods. Some expectations will be made to hands-on courses and labs. The alternative and online delivery of university courses could extend through the end of the semester in May. These measures are being put in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

“Few exceptions will be made,” UA President Jim Johnsen said in a Thursday press conference.

Gary Turner, director of Kenai Peninsula College, said staff at KPC will work next week to determine which classes will continue face-to-face. The spring break extension gives staff time to convert their classes into distance learning classes.

“There will be some (course) expectations,” Turner said. “What they all will be at this point, we don’t know. Some of the labs you can not do via distance.”

Students were scheduled to return Monday, but are now being asked to return to their courses, on March 23, most likely through an online course. On Monday, Turner said staff will hang signs on doors and stand by to alert students that classes are not in session.

“There’s going to be a lot of disappointment, a lot of questions,” Turner said. “It’s going to be a very challenging time. It’s the right thing to do, in my opinion. We have to err on the side of caution. The way the virus is rapidly evolving we have to think about the safety of our students and staff.”

University faculty and staff are expected to come back to work as scheduled on Monday unless they are showing symptoms for COVID-19 or are returning from countries experiencing an outbreak.

Students in residence halls are being asked to move out by March 17. Students will be able to retrieve their personal belongings before then, Johnsen said. Some students will be able to stay in residence halls and exceptions may be made for international students, students from rural Alaska or students who do not have an alternative place to stay.
On the Kenai Peninsula College campus, there are 15 students and six residence assistants living in the residence hall.

For students who do not have access to computers, a laptop, or internet connection, the university is planning to keep computer labs open.

“We are aware that not all students have their own equipment so we will be allowing access to computer labs, but exercising social distancing,” University of Alaska Anchorage Chancellor Cathy Sandeen said in Thursday’s press conference. “So, we may have fewer work stations in rooms to make that happen and we will certainly go in and clean the equipment and the rooms more frequently during this time.”

The University of Alaska System is also canceling all events with 25 people or more, effective through the end of the month. University travel will also be suspended. Johnsen said campuses are being cleaned thoroughly as well.  Plans for spring commencement are “to be determined,” Johnsen said.

“It’s a tough situation,” Johnsen said. “We are trying to make our way through a very risky possibility if this virus comes to Alaska and if this virus comes to the university. The impact of that would be very, very difficult for us to manage. We do have plans for managing it, but it would be extremely disruptive. On the other hand, we haven’t seen any cases yet.”

Shortly after the university system made their announcements, Anchorage School District announced they would be extending their spring break by another week too.
Impact on tourism

Preventive measures were also announced this week by members of Alaska’s cruise ship industry. Two cruise lines, Princess Cruises and Viking Ocean Cruises, have suspended service. Princess Cruises announced Thursday they are suspending services for 60 days, and all sailings before May 11 are cancelled. Viking Ocean Cruises announced Wednesday they are resuming their operations May 1.

The Viking Orion was set to leave Vancouver April 26 and arrive in Ketchikan April 28, Sitka April 29 and Juneau April 30.

Other cruise lines that frequent Alaska, like Holland America Line, Carnival Cruise Line and Norwegian Cruise Line, have issued advisories and boosted their passenger screening process.

Alaska’s first cruise of the season, the Carnival Spirit, is set to leave Vancouver, Canada, and dock April 22 in Tracy Arm near Juneau.

The first cruises to set sail for the Kenai Peninsula are Viking Ocean Cruises, set to dock in Seward May 5-7. In Homer, Holland America Cruises is set to dock May 12 and then Princess Cruises shortly after on May 15. Whittier’s first ship will be from Princess Cruise docking on May 16.

There are 1,215 cases across the U.S. in 43 other states and 36 total deaths, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. World Health Organization named the COVID-19 disease a global pandemic. The last global pandemic was in 2009 when H1N1, a novel influenza A virus, spread across the U.S. and then the world, according to the CDC. COVID-19 is a relative of the SARS and MERS viruses, which have caused outbreaks in the past. Symptoms for the disease include fever, runny nose, cough and breathing trouble. The elderly and those with weakened immune systems are particularly vulnerable to the disease.

State, local officials prepare for virus

Alaska, News, Print, Uncategorized

This story originally published in the Peninsula Clarion.

The state and borough are preparing for the potential arrival of COVID-19, a disease caused by a member of the coronavirus family that first appeared in late 2019 in Wuhan, China, and has since spread to countries around the world.

Gov. Mike Dunleavy and the state health department gave updates on the state’s preparedness for the virus during a Monday press conference. There are currently no cases in Alaska. However, three Alaskans have been tested, Dr. Anne Zink, the state’s chief medical officer, said in the Monday press conference. She said testing began Thursday. Two of those tests came back negative and one test is still pending.

Zink said it’s “highly likely” Alaska will see its first case soon.

Dunleavy said his administration has been meeting twice a week since mid-January to plan for the potential arrival of the virus.

“We believe Alaska is prepared to deal with this issue, as well or better than any state,” Dunleavy said in the conference.

Dunleavy announced he will be asking the Legislature to approve $9 million in funding assistance from the federal government and $4 million from the state general fund to fund five nurses to travel and educate residents in rural Alaska on best practices to avoid contracting the virus.

Zink urged Alaskans to stop touching their face, clean surfaces and wash their hands. If someone is feeling unwell, she said, they should stay home from school or work, cover their mouth and nose when they cough and sneeze and to generally take care of themselves.

She said elderly, disabled and those with underlying heart and lung conditions are the most vulnerable.

With the Iditarod start nearing, Zink said she’s briefed the organization on traveling and how to stay healthy.

Zink also reassured residents that there is no evidence that the virus is living on cargo traveling to and through Alaska.

“You can open your Amazon boxes and not be afraid,” Zink said.

On Friday, the Kenai Peninsula Borough Office of Emergency Management issued a statement on its website, letting residents know the borough is monitoring the virus and is making preparedness plans. Borough officials are refining their plans to make sure essential services continue if the virus comes to the peninsula, the statement said. During the month of March, the borough will be asking cities, port officials, hospitals, tribal entities and non-government agencies to come together to refine existing pandemic plans, identify and resolve potential gaps in those plans, and to involve representatives from the whole community in the process.

The borough does not have public health powers, and will be asking the state to assist them, as the situation evolves, the statement said.

COVID-19 is a relative of the SARS and MERS viruses, which have caused outbreaks in the past. Symptoms for the disease include fever, runny nose, cough and breathing trouble.

Hate crime resolution discussion gets heated

Alaska, News, Print, Uncategorized

This story originally published in the Peninsula Clarion.

A state bill looking to expand hate crime protections to include crimes motivated by the victim’s sexual orientation or gender identity received support from the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly.

A resolution supporting state House Bill 198, sponsored by assembly President Kelly Cooper and assembly Vice President Hal Smalley, passed 5-4 at Tuesday’s assembly meeting. The state bill would add “sexual orientation and gender identity” to the list of aggravating factors considered at sentencing.

Since January, Soldotna City Council and Kenai City Council have both passed similar resolutions.

The resolution came in the wake of a series of alleged incidents on the Kenai Peninsula. In November, Sterling resident Tammie Willis reported that a threatening note was left on her truck. Later that month, Willis reported that a rock was thrown at her windshield. In December, she reported being attacked in her home. She said she believes the incidents were motivated by her sexual orientation. The reported attack in Willis’ home led to a Jan. 4 town hall meeting, which opened the discussion for HB 198. After the town hall, Rep. Andy Josephson, D-Anchorage, introduced HB 198.

State statute 12.55.155(c)(22) currently defines an aggravating factor for hate crimes as “the defendant knowingly directed the conduct constituting the offense at a victim because of that person’s race, sex, color, creed, physical or mental disability, ancestry, or national origin,” but does not include sexual orientation or gender identity as an aggravating factor for sentencing of a person convicted of the crime.

HB 198 would amend statute to expand hate protections to include sexual orientation or gender identity.

Willis spoke to the assembly Tuesday night, telling them she has been unable to return to her home in Sterling after the reported incident in December.

“I was repeatedly cut with a knife and punched until almost my entire left side was covered in bruises,” Willis told the assembly. “It took 20 staples and two stitches to put me back together and almost two months for the bruises to heal. I rarely go out alone anymore and when I do it’s for short trips and with the company of a friend. I don’t sleep well. I have panic attacks in the dark and I still wake my wife up with nightmares.”

Willis said that since sharing her experience, she has “learned the hard way of why people don’t often come forward with their stories.”

“The outpouring of hatred seen on social media since my coming forward cuts deep just like the knife did,” Willis said.

She said at the same time, she’s seen support from people all over Alaska. She spoke in support of the resolution and HB 198, saying it sends a clear message that “hate and violence are not values we share in this community.”

Testimony gets heated

After Willis’ testimony, assembly member Jesse Bjorkman asked Willis to speak to accusations regarding her story that are circulating around the community.

“I respect you as a person and because of that I feel it’s only fair to make sure you know what people are saying to us and there are people who don’t believe your story,” Bjorkman said. “I’m going to ask you these questions because they are things that have been asked of me and things that I have been told. There’s an accusation out there that the handwriting written on the note that was written by whomever left the note and your own handwriting that was put on the note is very similar. How do you respond to that?”

Willis said the accusation was not true. Cooper stopped the meeting for a two-minute recess and returned, asking Willis to respond to Bjorkman.

Willis said Bjorkman’s question is “exactly why people in the LGBTQ community don’t come forward and report the assaults and the violence that they face.” She said people would rather “dismiss those experiences than believe it can actually happen in their community.”

“I have read the posts on Facebook and every one of them has killed me when I read it, and it never would have happened if I had not come forward,” Willis said. “Every day I get hate mail. I get accusations that I’m lying, that I’m fake news, that I should go kill myself because people don’t want to believe my experience is true. It is true.”

In response, Bjorkman said it is never OK to attack and harm others and asked Willis to keep telling her truth and her story.

Community weighs in

Kaegan Koski, a junior at River City Academy, shared a student perspective with the assembly. Koski described experiences his peers in the LGBTQ community face. He said students he knows receive messages from “fake Instagram accounts” made by other students. The messages include the “F-word and other bigoted slurs telling the students in question repeatedly to kill themselves.” Koski said students can block the Instagram accounts, but that new ones are made shortly after “to continue the brutal onslaught.”

Koski said his peers tell him they are “compelled to commit self harm” as a result of the messages.

“I understand that this legislation isn’t a cure-all,” Koski told the assembly. “I understand that not every act of violence will stop. But when we as a community and a borough decide that this kind of harassment, this maltreatment of our fellow people is wrong, people begin to follow suit. It changes the climate when our government says that this is not right. When we say it with action and not with just words, we protect people from atrocious, hideous acts of violence. We show victims and citizens that they are not alone.”

David Brighton of Kenai also spoke in support of the resolution. He said it’s difficult to live in the area as a member of the LGBTQ community.

“I know of more than one member of the LGBTQ community who is planning on moving out of this area, out of the Kenai Peninsula, because this is a hard place for members of the LGBTQ community to live,” Brighton said. “We don’t want it to be that way, most of us, I hope.”

Of the nine assembly members, five were in support of the resolution: Kenn Carpenter, Smalley, Cooper, Willy Dunne and Brent Johnson. Many of the assembly members in their comments before the vote said they were concerned people in the borough were living in fear.

“As elected officials, we can’t remain silent when people in our communities live in fear,” Smalley said.

“It may not be my belief, but I believe in people, so I’m going to support this,” Carpenter said. “… Two hundred people show up to a town hall in one little community? There’s an issue, so we should support this.”

“I am here,” Cooper said. “I believe you and you do not deserve to have to go through life — life is hard enough. We shouldn’t worry about the people we love, whether tonight is the night or today is the day or when they’re 20 minutes late from being home, if there was some fool out there who decided they were going to teach them a lesson.”

Dunne, who signed on as a co-sponsor of the resolution, said the state needs to add sexual orientation and gender identity as a protected class under the hate crime definition.

“We saw that in our society for many years with race,” Dunne said. “As a nation, we decided that is not acceptable and now it’s time to say it’s not acceptable for people of a certain sexual orientation or gender identity.”

Johnson said that there is always a need for minority people to be protected.

“The majority can gang up against a minority and harass them to no end,” Johnson said. The people in this community — gosh, I saw it and you’ve seen it — these people need protection because they’re being mistreated … I hope that we can have sympathy and that eventually humanity will grow past these insane things.”

‘Wrong things are wrong’

Assembly members Norm Blakeley, Bjorkman, Tyson Cox and Brent Hibbert voted against the resolution.

Hibbert and Blakeley both said they have been “struggling” with the resolution. Hibbert said he sees a division in the community and believes the resolution will cause more division between groups.

“When a crime is committed against a person, whether they’re gay or whether they’re not, I still think that it should be the same punishment because once we start singling out different groups I think that’s when the division comes and the tolerance goes away,” Hibbert said. “I still believe this is going to lead to more division and hate and discontent with our communities. I think we need more love.”

Bjorkman also said protection should be equal to all people under the law.

“I can’t support this resolution because I think wrong things are wrong,” Bjorkman said. “We should value all people equally and we should have equal protection under the law. We should speak up to people who perpetuate violence in our community and stand strong together as people, as Alaskans.”

Cox said he does not support the violence happening in the community, but that he did not support hate crime legislation at all.

“I personally don’t support hate crime legislation at all,” Cox said. “I don’t believe it to be that effective. I believe it to be exclusive and somewhat arbitrary in the fact that it all depends on what the political mood is of a given legislation.”

Copies of the resolution will be sent to Rep. Gary Knopp, R-Kenai/Soldotna; Rep. Ben Carpenter, R-Nikiski; Rep. Sarah Vance, R-Homer; and Sen. Peter Micciche, R-Kenai/Soldotna.

Former Nikiski teacher sentenced to 30 years for sexual abuse

News, Print, Uncategorized

This story originally published in the Peninsula Clarion.

A former Nikiski music teacher was sentenced Tuesday to 30 years incarceration for sexual abuse of a former student.

In 2014, Jeremy Anderson, a music teacher at Nikiski Middle/High School, was accused of sexual abuse of a minor and faced 16 charges of first- and second-degree sexual abuse of a minor. At his sentencing hearing Tuesday, Judge Jennifer Wells sentenced Anderson to 30 years incarceration with 10 years suspended, and 15 years probation for sexual abuse of a minor in the second degree, a class B felony in Alaska.

The victim, present at the court hearing, gave a statement before the sentencing. They said that as the victim, their voice has not been heard enough.

“Seven years ago, my mentor crossed the line,” they said during the hearing. “He turned what I thought was a healthy student-teacher relationship into my longest nightmare.”

The victim said Anderson worked to gain their trust throughout their eighth grade year, which escalated the following school year to months of sexual abuse occurring during the beginning months of 2014.

After the victim, the victim’s mother and the counsel made statements, Anderson addressed the public in his statement to the judge. Anderson apologized to the victim and their family, his own family, the community of Nikiski and the staff, students and parents he worked with at Nikiski Middle/High School.

“Saying the words ‘I’m sorry’ seems trite, but I don’t know what else to say to convey my remorse,” Anderson said at the hearing. “I was the adult — I was trusted and I failed. That was on me.”

When asked if she had any comments about the sentence, the victim’s mother said she was glad her child got to tell their story and that it was finally over.

Judge Wells said during the hearing that the crimes were “very cruel acts.”

“There are fewer people that children trust more than teachers, I suppose priests would fit in that category as well,” she said at the hearing. “So the damage inflicted by someone who is in a position of trust is just all the more cruel than if it were a different situation.”

The court recommended Anderson seek rehabilitation through sex offender treatment.

“The number one apology he can offer to the world is to make sure that he doesn’t hurt anybody else,” Wells said at the hearing.

EdWeek: An Alaskan Village’s Long Wait for a New School

Alaska, Education, News, Online, Print, Uncategorized

This story was originally published in Education Week, as part of the 2019 Gregory M. Chronister Journalism Fellowship.

At the headwaters of Kachemak Bay and past the terminus of Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula road system sits the village of Kachemak Selo. There’s technically no road to Selo—as locals call it—just a steep switchback dirt trail taking vehicles with four-wheel drive 800 feet down to the rocky beach where the community sits.

The community’s remoteness is one of the reasons Selo has been struggling for nearly a decade to get a new school. Kachemak Selo School—a set of three buildings built in the 1980s and 90s by local residents—is “deteriorated beyond useful capacity,” according to the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District. The community has little hope that a replacement school will come anytime soon for the school’s 39 K-12 students.

While rural districts across the U.S. struggle to pay to maintain adequate school buildings, Selo’s challenges are particularly complicated, compounded by the community’s distinct desire to maintain cultural independence, a patchwork of school finance regulations, deteriorating state support, and the high cost of construction in a roadless and remote community.

The sole community enterprise, the Village of Kachemak Selo Water Company Inc., owns the two buildings that house the central office and the elementary school. The building housing the middle and high school is owned by a private citizen and has more visible damage than the others, with cracks in the corners, crooked door frames, and floors so uneven that the furniture must be reinforced to stay in place. Books stacked under table legs keep the surfaces level.

The schools are among 42 operated by the borough school district, which serves nearly 8,500 students in an area the size of West Virginia. The territory includes some urban schools, rural schools, three other Russian Old Believer schools, and a few Alaska Native Village schools.

In 2011, Selo petitioned its borough government for a new school. The borough then petitioned the state, which responded five years later, appropriating $10 million to build it. To take advantage of those funds, however, the borough had to provide a $5.5 million match. (The price tag reflects the difficulty of carting construction materials to the village.) Borough voters rejected the bond petition for the matching funds in October 2018. And, although the state extended its offer to June 2021, Kachemak Selo Principal Michael Wojciak said voter approval for a second-round vote will be “a tough sell.”

“I get it,” said Wojciak. “We’re in an economic hardship, whether it’s the borough or the state. For people to vote for higher taxes—it’s not a great time to do that.” According to the borough, that bond would equate to $4.95 per $100,000 of assessed real or personal property values.

Long History of Isolation
Old Believers are Eastern Orthodox Christians who fled Russia in the 17th century in order to worship free of persecution or outside influences. Selo is one of four such villages established on the southern Kenai Peninsula in the 1960s. There are no stores here, just a school and a few dozen homes. The women wear long dresses they make themselves, and the men wear traditional tunics with special collars and a thin belt cinched at the waist. Russian, in addition to English, is spoken throughout the community and taught in school. The Kenai Peninsula school district gives Old Believer schools control of their calendars to accommodate time off for holy days.

Drivers who brave the precipitous switchback trail to Selo can see the village entrance about a quarter mile down the beach, where a handful of no trespassing signs are posted on trees. Like other Old Believer communities, Selo embraces its privacy and isolation.

That desire for cultural independence may be one reason the school bond caused controversy within the village.

“Nobody wants the borough coming down,” said Andy Rothenberger, a teacher in Kachemak Selo’s middle and high school. “The town wants their anonymity, and they’re willing to put up with it.”

Rothenberger left the community to teach across the peninsula in the town of Seward, but missed Selo and returned, thinking he could help continue the fight for an adequate school. Now, he said, some members of the community have grown frustrated and apathetic.

“You definitely heard it after the bond failed from the kids,” Rothenberger said. “They were really disappointed and involved in the effort.”

Kachemak Selo student Susanna Reutov, 16, exemplified that view. “Our school is really crappy,” she said. “I didn’t mean to use that word. But there are always earthquakes, and every time there’s an earthquake there’s a bunch of cracks in the wall. You wonder if there’s ever going to be a big earthquake where the whole school would just fall apart.” (The community has experienced tremors from other earthquakes in that part of the state in recent years.)

Susanna and her brother Kelsey, 14, don’t expect to get a new school until after they graduate—but they hope it will be in time for their 8-year-old brother to benefit.

Some residents also worry about the potential income loss if a new, borough-owned school is built, Wojciak said. The community collects rent from the borough on two of the buildings, which helps maintain the utility company and the trail in and out of Selo. The middle-high school building is privately owned.

A Common Concern
Kachemak Selo School isn’t the only one in the district outliving its useful life. In 2018, the district said a quarter of its schools were 50 years old or older, and 80 percent were more than 30 years old. Pegge Erkeneff, the district’s communications director, said Selo is unusual among other district schools because the district doesn’t own the building and thus can only provide limited maintenance.

The problem of deteriorating school buildings is one that plagues the state—and the nation. The United States faces a $46 billion annual shortfall in funds to keep school buildings healthy, safe, and conducive to learning, according to the 2016 report, “State of Our Schools,” by the 21st Century School Fund, the National Council on School Facilities, and the Center for Green Schools.

In some ways, though, Alaska may be more generous than some other states in sharing the cost of new school buildings. Twelve states provide no direct funding or reimbursements to school districts for capital spending, according to the report.

The 49th state offers grants and debt reimbursement for projects that cost $50,000 or more. The Alaska legislature uses state-created priority lists to determine appropriations for school infrastructure, which vary from year to year and come in the form of a grant that requires the district to match 2 percent to 35 percent of the project’s total cost.

On average, the state shoulders 37 percent of the cost of capital construction for schools, as compared with the national average of 18 percent, according to the State of Our Schools study.

The study projects Alaska will need to spend about $1.10 billion in new school construction by 2024 to address its aging school infrastructure—a price tag that could grow as natural disasters and climate events grow in frequency.

Heidi Teshner, the director of finance and support services for the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development, said funding for the grant and debt reimbursement programs has not changed in 20 years, even as availability varies annually.

But in the Kenai Peninsula, borough finance director Brenda Ahlberg said the amount the state provides for school construction and debt service has been diminishing.

How the state plans to address school infrastructure issues in Selo and other communities is unclear. Gov. Mike Dunleavy, a former educator elected in 2018, ran on a platform to shrink the size and cost of government and close a state budget deficit created by dwindling oil revenues. In his first year as governor, Dunleavy made deep budget cuts in departments across the state, including education.

Dunleavy said in a March 2019 interview that the state could explore ways to educate children outside of a traditional brick-and-mortar school building, potentially through distance learning.

“Sometimes we get hung up on buildings in schooling, and less so on educational outcomes,” he said.

And while the federal government provided funding that helped build the state’s education infrastructure during the 1930s and after World War II, there is almost no such support now, according to the State of Our Schools analysis. A Congressional proposal to appropriate $100 billion nationwide for school repairs and rebuilding has languished in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Facilities’ Link to Learning
However, studies show school infrastructure can impact educational outcomes. Air ventilation, adequate lighting, and acoustics have all been shown to help students remain alert and ready to learn, the State of Schools study says. Poor facilities are also linked to student truancy and higher rates of suspension, according to the report.

In Selo, Principal Wojciak said a new school could help with student absenteeism.

“We have a plenty big enough problem with students skipping school and absences,” Wojciak said. “If they had a beautiful building to go to everyday it might be a little more of an incentive.”

There are no estimates of how much longer the community school buildings can be used. If the school is shut down, the district says, it will ensure that students have “a continuity of operations in an alternative learning environment.” That might mean placement in the district’s homeschool program, online distance learning options or “space at the closest area school for students.”

The next closest school would likely be another Old Believer School, either in Voznesenka or Razdolna, both of which sit atop mountains behind the community. Getting there would mean driving a school bus on the beach, then up the switchback trail.

In the meantime, local leaders are reconsidering their push. While Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Charlie Pierce said he isn’t interested in introducing another bond proposition, a smaller, less expensive building may be within means. The school district is working on a $30 million bond package proposal that would help pay for repairs in schools across the district and build a new school in Selo, superintendent John O’Brien announced this month. The package includes 19 deferred maintenance projects and the $5.3 million in matching funds needed to take up the state grant offer.

Wojciak, for one, hasn’t lost hope.

“At some point there’s a legal responsibility to give kids an adequate space,” he said. “At some point, somebody is on the hook. I don’t know what or when it is, but in time, something will change.”

Vol. 39, Issue 21, Pages 1, 16-19

District proposes $30 million bond package to address aging school facility needs

Alaska, Education, News, Print, Uncategorized

This story originally published in the Peninsula Clarion.

A $30 million bond package proposal is in the works to tackle nearly 20 different deferred maintenance projects in school buildings across the peninsula, Kenai Peninsula Borough School District Superintendent John O’Brien announced at Monday’s Kenai Peninsula Borough School District Board of Education meeting.

The district is working closely with the Kenai Peninsula Borough on a $29,940,000 bond proposal that will fund facility projects districtwide, including a new school in Kachemak Selo, O’Brien said at Monday’s meeting.

O’Brien said the funding would address “many concerns” about buildings in the district, such as facilities at the end of their useful life, critical component replacements, safety concerns, necessary repairs and some energy saving measures.

About a quarter of the district’s schools are 50 years or older, while 80% of schools are more than 30 years old.

Debbie Carey, a school board member, said at Monday’s meeting that she hopes the package sees support from communities across the district.

“If you look at the average age of our buildings, they are getting very old,” Carey said. “You can’t expect them to continue without doing maintenance on them so the bond package is going to be really important moving forward.”

There are 19 different deferred maintenance projects the draft bond package would cover, according to the draft bond list document.

On the central peninsula, Kenai Middle School is looking at a kitchen and serving area remodel, according to the draft list. Kenai Middle School, built in 1968, holds three lunch periods serving 200 students a day. The estimated cost of the remodel is $750,000.

Several schools need heating control replacements. Kenai Central High School’s control needs replacement is estimated to cost $872,500. Nikiski Middle/High School’s replacement is estimated to cost $593,395. Skyview Middle School’s replacement is estimated to cost $591,360.

Nikiski North Star is in need of a metal roof replacement, costing $3,422,902. Notes in the draft bond list say that water penetrated the Nikiski North Star siding and froze last winter.

Another project in the draft list is a $2 million Soldotna School Facilities renovation, which would “address building issues.” The list did not say which schools in Soldotna this project would pertain to.

Sterling Elementary is in need of window and siding replacement, costing $417,750. According to the draft list, the east wing of the school was constructed first in 1961.

Many of the projects in the draft bond package are focused on the southern peninsula. Chapman School in Anchor Point is also in need of a window and siding replacement, with an estimated cost of $308,580.

West Homer Elementary needs a new wall on its north side. According to the draft document, the north concrete wall “started allowing moisture penetration into the building.” Water has caused damage to surfaces and has contributed to mold growth, the list said.

The $659,583 project would install a secondary wall over the exterior surface to prevent water intrusion.

Ninilchik School needs its windows and boiler replaced, costing $201,017 and $413,012, respectively. Nanwalek, south of Homer, needs its upstairs windows replaced and its kitchen expanded to the tune of $1,230,214.

Homer High School has two projects on the list, including a roof replacement and a heating control replacement. The high school’s roof replacement has a $8,271,734 price tag. According to the draft document, the original roof was installed in 1985, is no longer in warranty and is “deteriorating.” Current attic ventilation in the school “has proven to be inadequate” and the internal gutter system is “no longer functioning to protect the building from leakage,” the draft document said about Homer High School.

Notes in the draft list say the borough may apply for a grant to address the roof replacement. Componenets of the school’s heating control system, installed in 1985, are failing and do not meet standards, the draft document said. The heating system replacement will cost $900,000.

The draft bond package also includes the $5,390,000 local match needed to build a new school at the head of Kachemak Bay, in the village of Kachemak Selo. The village petitioned for a new school nearly a decade ago.

According to the draft document, the buildings used as the village’s schools are in disrepair and out of code. A $5.3 million bond package to build a new school in the village was failed by borough voters in 2018. The $5.3 million is the local match required by the borough to access more than $10 million from the state to help construct a new school in the community of Kachemak Selo. Those state funds expire next summer.

School board member Zen Kelly said he was “super excited” about the package because the bond money would fund matches for state grants.

“This bond proposal is taking advantage of the grant funding the state has given us for the Kachemak Selo School project,” Kelly said. “It is the best deal we are ever going to get in building a new school, and a new school is needed at the head of the bay.”

On the eastern peninsula, the draft bond package includes a project at Seward Middle School for interior and exterior repairs “required to preserve building integrity,” costing $857,314. The building was damaged in a 2016 earthquake.

The school in Cooper Landing is also in need of a window and siding replacement, costing $277,550.

Across the inlet in Tyonek, Tebughna School, built in 1966, is in need of a total window replacement costing $832,500.

School board member Matthew Morse said at Monday’s meeting that it can be hard to get community members on board with bond packages, but that the district has critical maintenance needs.

The bond package is still in draft form.

1,000 still without power after heavy snow

Alaska, News, Print, Uncategorized

This story originally published in the Peninsula Clarion.

After heavy snow fell on the peninsula for over two days, about a thousand residents — mostly in Nikiski — are still without power, some for more than 48 hours. Homer Electric has pulled in additional crews and support to bring power back to affected members.

There are approximately 1,000 members without power, as of Wednesday, Bruce Shelley, director of member relations with Homer Electric, said. On Tuesday, there were about 3,100 members without power.

As of Wednesday afternoon, 65 active outage cases affecting 1,255 meters were being worked by Homer Electric’s Operations Dispatch Center. More than 90% of these cases are in Nikiski.

“It’s very devastating,” Shelley said. “Trees are so heavy-laden because of the snow.”

Shelley said their focus is in Nikiski, where they are still receiving numerous calls about trees arching and laying on lines. Shelley said they are hoping to bring power back to a “good chunk” of affected members by Thursday.

The longest running outage is on the Fisherman’s Road area of Nikiski, where power has been out since 4 a.m. Monday. The area has extensive damage that a crew will be addressing Wednesday afternoon, Wednesday’s Facebook update said.

The largest outage is also in Nikiski affecting 129 meters north of Halbouty Road. Homer Electric’s Wednesday Facebook post said two crews will be working in the area Wednesday afternoon.

Carlos Tree Service has four rotating crews working the hardest-hit areas of Nikiski, the Facebook post said, where they are removing trees ahead of the crews to facilitate the restoration process.

Homer Electric has pulled all crews from Homer and contracted additional crews to tackle the outages. The Dec. 3 press release said the Homer Electric staff and crews are working around the clock to restore power to all members.

“We’re working 24/7,” Shelley said.

While the forecast calls for decreased snowfall there is still a risk of outages caused by snow shedding off power lines and trees. Shelley said high winds are also expected this week, which could cause other problems for the power company. Trees bent by heavy snow could fall in high winds onto power lines, potentially causing more outages. Shelley says residents need to brace themselves.

The outages began Sunday evening when heavy snow loads came down on the company’s northern service area. Most of the outages were caused by heavy snow weighing down on power lines and nearby trees, the Dec. 3 release said.

For residents who have been without power, Homer Electric encourages they seek safety and comfort.

“Whether that means purchasing a generator or staying at a family or friend’s residence, please prepare your family with the basic needs and keep emergency supplies during winter storms,” the Dec. 3 release said.

Residents who want to stay up to date on outage notifications can visit Homer Electric’s Facebook page.

The Outage Hotline, 1-888-8OUTAGE (1-888-868-8243), is directly monitored by Homer Electric’s operations department. General questions, contact HEA’s Member Services Department at 1-800-478-8551.

For additional information, please contact Bruce Shelley at 907-283-2324.

Anchorage will still host 2020 Board of Fisheries meeting

Alaska, News, Print, Uncategorized

This story originally published in the Peninsula Clarion.

Anchorage will be the location for the Alaska Board of Fisheries 2020 Upper Cook Inlet Finfish meeting. The Board of Fisheries voted on the location site at the end of their two-day work session in Anchorage, Thursday.

The vote was 4-3 in favor of locating the regulatory meeting in Anchorage in 2020. Board members Märit Carlson-Van Dort, Gerad Godfrey and Fritz Johnson opposed having the meeting in Anchorage.

Johnson said it’s been long overdue that the meeting be held in Kenai.

The meeting has never been held in the Matanuska Susitna Borough and was last held on the Kenai Peninsula in 1999.

In an unexpected vote in January, the Alaska Board of Fisheries decided to move the 2020 regulatory meeting from the Kenai Peninsula to Anchorage. The meeting was originally going to be held in Anchorage, but a March 2018 vote moved the 2020 meeting to the Kenai-Soldotna area, and established a policy that rotated the Upper Cook Inlet Finfish meetings between Anchorage, Kenai/Soldotna and Palmer/Wasilla.

At their Thursday work session, the board also rescinded the policy that rotated the Upper Cook Inlet Finfish meeting locations between Palmer/Wasilla, Kenai/Soldotna and Anchorage.

“The board considers Kenai as an option, Anchorage as an option and Palmer as an option, even though it’s been decided on in Anchorage these past 20 years or what have you,” Board member Israel Payton said at Thursday’s work session. “That’s the wisdom of the board at the time that that’s the best place to hold the meeting. It may not be fair to stakeholders in the Mat Su. It may not be fair to stakeholders on the Kenai Peninsula, but it’s what the board decided at the time that was just for all stakeholders.”

When asked about the cost to host in each of the three communities, Board of Fisheries Executive Director Glenn Haight said that “surprisingly,” travel costs between the three locations are similar, all ranging between $115,00 to $120,000. He said the venue in Kenai was offered for free and would result in a $30,000 savings.

The decision to hold a new vote on Thursday came after an investigation by the state ombudsman found that the board violated the Open Meetings Act.

Alaska State Ombudsman Kate Burkhart found in a final Aug. 29 report that the Board of Fisheries violated the act when they decided in January 2019 to relocate the finfish meeting from the Kenai/Soldotna area to Anchorage. Burkhart said the board should hold another vote on the location of the 2020 meeting location, after providing notice. That vote took place Thursday.

The ombudsman investigation found that while the board had provided notice of its January 2019 meeting, the notice did not include the board’s intent to revisit the issue of where the 2020 finfish meeting would be held.

At the start of the Arctic-Yukon-Kuskokwim finfish meeting on Tuesday, Jan. 15, Board of Fisheries Chair Reed Morisky announced the board would likely be considering the Upper Cook Inlet meeting location at the end of the meeting. On Friday, Jan. 18, the board reversed their March 2018 decision with a 4-3 vote, moving the 2020 meeting back to Anchorage.

During a break in the Jan. 18 meeting, Morisky told stakeholders from Kenai the board would not take up the issue of the location of the 2020 meeting, and those stakeholders left the meeting based on Morisky’s advice, the ombudsman’s release said.

“Yes, I did speak with the Kenai official and he expressed that if it looked like we weren’t going to take this up, he wanted to leave,” Morisky said on the record at the Jan. 18 meeting, according to the ombudsman’s investigation. “And the conversation we had at the time was that it looked like weren’t going to take this up at the meeting. So, I take full responsibility for that, there was no intent to mislead. He left and circumstances changed, and I apologize for that but we’re here now and we’re going to vote on this.”

The Upper Cook Inlet Finfish meeting is set to take place Feb. 7-20, 2020, at the Egan Center in Anchorage.

Alaska Yes responds to APOC allegations

Alaska, News, Print, Uncategorized

This story originally published in the Peninsula Clarion.

Alaska Yes Inc has responded to a complaint, denying many of the allegations that they violated several campaign laws. The complaint was filed against the nonprofit in September by Alaska Public Offices Commission staff.

In a Sept. 23 memo from Campaign Disclosure Coordinator Thomas Lucas to Alaska Public Offices Commissioners, he wrote that Alaska Yes Inc had violated several campaign laws, including failing to register as a group in a timely matter, failing to file campaign disclosure reports, failing to report non-monetary contributions to the John Quick campaign, using Alaska Yes expenditures to support Quick and failing to identify the true source of funds used in expenditures. Quick ran for the Nikiski seat on the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly, but lost to Jesse Bjorkman.

An Oct. 16 letter response from Elizabeth Leduc, an attorney representing Alaska Yes Inc in the APOC investigation, refutes specific allegations made by the commission’s staff.

In their memo, Alaska Public Offices Commission defines Alaska Yes Inc as a “group,” which is defined as “any combination of two or more individuals acting jointly who organize for the principal purpose of influencing the outcome of one or more elections and who take action the major purpose of which is to influence the outcome of an election.”

In Leduc’s letter, she said Alaska Yes Inc does not qualify as a group because the nonprofit was not created for the purpose of influencing an election.

According to APOC’s memo, Alaska Yes Inc began making expenditures prior to an Aug. 31 fundraiser, but did not register as a group with Alaska Public Offices Commission until Sept. 5, and only did so as an entity, not as a group, violating campaign law AS 15.13.050.

An affidavit from Peter Zuyus, Alaska Yes Inc president and chairperson, says that their organization’s first expenditure was made on or around Sept. 10, with the purchase of signs opposing Proposition 1.

However, Facebook’s ad library, which archives information about advertising campaigns on social issues and elections for transparency purposes, shows Alaska Yes’ — now deactivated — paid for four ads related to the October municipal election to run on their Facebook page between Aug. 18 and Sept. 7.

Two ads showing endorsement videos for assembly candidate Quick from Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Charlie Pierce and Rep. Ben Carpenter (R-Nikiski) ran from Sept. 5-7. Another ad that ran between Aug. 18-23 advertises a website against then-assembly candidate Tyson Cox. The website, tysoncoxno.com, is now deactivated, but did contain a disclaimer that the site was also paid for and approved by Alaska Yes Inc. Another ad, also running Aug. 18-23 opposed then-assembly candidate Brent Johnson. Less than $100 was spent on each ad campaign, according to the library’s archive.

Alaska Yes Inc advertisements contained disclosures saying “not authorized, paid for or approved by any candidate.” The complaint says this disclaimer is not true and violated law AS 15.13.135. Alaska Yes Inc’s then-treasurer, Kathy Toms, testified to the commission that Quick’s former campaign manager, Paul Huber, participated in Alaska Yes campaigns in support of Quick.

“Likewise, because of Mr. Huber’s participation, Alaska Yes’ expenditures supporting Mr. Quick and opposing his opponents are not independent expenditures, but rather, are non-monetary contributions to the Quick campaign,” the memo said.

In Leduc’s letter, Alaska Yes Inc acknowledges Huber’s correspondence with the nonprofit, saying the organization’s president, Zuyus, sent three emails to Huber on Sept. 4, 8 and 16.

“I started sending emails to the board of Alaska Yes and Paul Huber regarding possible content for ads opposing Jonathon Quick’s opponent Jesse Bjorkman,” Zuyus said in his affidavit.

Zuyus said the print ad regarding Bjorkman never ran and that Huber did not approve or disapprove any ads for Alaska Yes Inc. The three emails Huber corresponded on were provided to the commission, the affidavit said.

The complaint alleges that Alaska Yes Inc expenditures supporting Quick violate law AS 15.13.074(f).

“Alaska Yes funded its support of Mr. Quick with contributions from persons prohibited from contributing to a candidate,” the memo said.

In his affidavit, Zuyus says Alaska Yes spent less than $100 on “pro-Quick/anti-Bjorkman campaign activity.”

The final allegation on the complaint says Alaska Yes Inc did not identify the true sources of the funds it’s used for expenditures in support of Quick’s campaign.

“Alaska Yes has filed an independent expenditure report showing that its sole contributor is Celebrate Alaska,” the commission’s memo said. “But, Celebrate Alaska is simply a reserved name owned by Alaska Yes. The true source of the funds would be the contributors who contributed to the Celebrate Alaska fundraiser(s). Failure to identify the true source of funds is a violation of AS 15.13.074(a) and 2 AAC 50.258(a).”

In an independent expenditure form filed in September with the Alaska Public Offices Commission, a number of expenditures on signs, print and radio advertisements and auto expenses, were listed totalling $4,979.83.

In that filing, Alaska Yes also paid for ads to Sound Publishing, the owner of the Homer News and the Peninsula Clarion, for ads against borough Prop 1 and in support of Homer City Council candidates Tom Stroozas and Shelly Erickson and assembly candidates Rose Henry and Holly Odd.

The filing also includes a contributor, Celebrate Alaska. The contribution was made on Aug. 31, for $20,930.17.

The name Celebrate Alaska, was used by Alaska Yes Aug. 31 to host a fundraiser to celebrate former Lt. Governor Loren Leman, Duc’s response said. The gala-style event was held at Homer’s Lands End Resort and included dinner, music and a live auction. Tickets for the event were $100 and a copy of the ticket says that the event’s proceeds “will support issues and programs that enhance the well-being of Alaskans whose voices are not often heard, including Alaskan seniors, veterans and those with disabilities.”

Leduc’s response said the event was not intended or described as an election-related event. Duc said Alaska Yes Inc mistakenly the $20,930.17 in funds as contributions in their expenditures report.

“Alaska Yes maintains that the participants in the Celebrate Alaska event should rightfully be considered donors, rather than contributors,” Leduc said in her letter.

Alaska Yes Inc has filed a notice of closure with the Internal Revenue Service. All of Alaska Yes’ board of directors — except for Zuyus — have resigned,including Alaska’s District 31 Republican Party chair Nona Safra, former Nikiski assembly president Wayne Ogle and Kathy Toms. The organization will be administratively dissolved by the state, Zuyus’ affidavit said.

Leduc said Alaska Yes Inc is fully cooperating with the ongoing APOC investigation, and declined to comment further.

Soldotna moves ahead with annexation, exempts K-Beach

Alaska, News, Print, Uncategorized

This story originally published in the Peninsula Clarion.

The City of Soldotna voted to move forward with its efforts to annex areas near its city limits, with the exception of the areas along Kalifornsky Beach Road.

The city council approved a substitute resolution, which removes areas 4 and 5 — the two annexation areas along K-Beach Road — from the petition and authorizes the city manager to send that amended petition to the Local Boundary Commission, the state entity with the authority to change and create municipal boundaries.

The areas in the substitute resolution approved to move forward in the annexation process include an area near the Soldotna Airport along Funny River Road; an area including and near the Tsalteshi Trails and Skyview Middle School; an area that includes a business corridor along the Kenai Spur Highway, ending near Big Eddy Road; and an area along Funny River Road.

Council member Tim Cashman sponsored the substitute resolution. He said there are things that the city isn’t ready to deal with.

“I’m aware there are concerns in the K-Beach area, that’s why I wanted to bring it forward,” Cashman said during the meeting.

The council voted unanimously to send their amended petition to the state.

Council member Tyson Cox was barred from voting on the original resolution, due to a conflict of interest since he owned property in the K-Beach area. Since the K-Beach area was removed from the petition, Cox was allowed to vote.

Members of the public who spoke during the resolution’s public hearing Thursday night said they weren’t satisfied with the city’s substitute resolution. Residents in the annexation areas encouraged the council to postpone the vote until after the election of new city council members, and after Soldotna’s special election for a new mayor in December.

“Why does this have to happen now?” Borough Residents Against Annexation President Matthew Law asked the council Thursday night.

In June 2018, the Soldotna City Council passed a resolution to start drafting a petition to annex seven areas adjacent to the city limits.

The action was postponed two weeks ago at the last Soldotna City Council meeting. During the Sept. 12 meeting, Soldotna City Manager Stephanie Queen told the council and the audience in the council chambers that several possible amendments to the petition were presented to the administration, and more time would be necessary to implement any changes to the petition.

The petition to annex areas around the city has seen backlash from area residents. In a Soldotna city public hearing held Sept. 7, more than 30 residents spoke against the city’s efforts to annex, while only one resident spoke in support.

In the petition, the city said it’s hoping to annex nearby areas as a way to respond to growth and development and to more accurately align the city’s corporate boundaries with the community that has developed since the city’s incorporation in 1960.

Through annexation, Soldotna will have the opportunity to glean millions in tax revenue from additional businesses and residents.

Soldotna said annexation could benefit residents by giving them a voice in city government and lowering property tax rates. Residents in Soldotna pay 8.06 mills, or 0.9 mills less than the tax rate paid by borough residents (8.96 mills) within the territory proposed for annexation, according to the petition.

Residents being annexed would also have access to city services, including parks and recreation, a library, animal control, water and waste water utilities, comprehensive zoning, economic development incentives, local police protection and building code review and inspections for commercial and residential construction.

Residents in the areas proposed for annexation have said they would like to vote on the matter. State law allows municipalities to expand their boundaries through the legislative review process or through voter approval.

The legislative process requires municipalities to send a petition to the Local Boundary Commission, and from there the Local Boundary Commission may present proposed changes to the Legislature during the first 10 days of any regular session. Unless the recommendation is denied, any changes will be approved 45 days after the initial presentation or at the end of the session, whichever comes first.

Strike averted after tentative agreement struck

Alaska, Education, News, Print, Uncategorized

This story originally published in the Peninsula Clarion.

An educator and support staff strike was averted hours before it was slated to begin, early Tuesday morning, when the school district and two employee associations reached a tentative agreement.

The agreement for a three-year contract, reached at 1:37 a.m., will be effective between July 1, 2018 and June 30, 2021.

“We’re glad we didn’t have to go on strike,” Kenai Peninsula Education Association President David Brighton said. “Teachers are very excited to be back in their classrooms and working with students. No one wanted that interruption to the education process. I’m also very thankful for the community support that we felt throughout this process.”

The associations and the district had been negotiating for a contract for nearly 600 days, and bargaining was snagged on the rising cost of health care. After contract negotiations hit a standstill last week, the education associations notified the school district Friday of their intent to strike.

The Kenai Peninsula Borough School District presented the associations — Kenai Peninsula Education Association and the Kenai Peninsula Education Support Association — with a counter proposal at 9:30 p.m., Monday.

“Our feeling is this addresses the concern of the rising cost of health care and sets a more sustainable rate for us,” Brighton said Tuesday. “It seems like a good compromise all around.”

Brighton said the district’s counter offer was based on an offer the associations presented to the district back on May 13. The offer migrates employees from the district’s traditional plan to the high-deductible plan currently available and removes a spending cap on health care costs. The cap was a funding limit that when surpassed required employees to split costs 50-50. Beginning in January 2020, every employee will migrate to one of two high-deductible plans — the current high-deductible plan and a new modified one offered in the district’s proposal. Under the new plans, the district will pay 85% of health care costs, while the employee pays 15% with no cap.

The traditional plan had more expensive premiums, meaning more money taken out of employees’ paychecks. The high-deductible plan ensures less expensive premiums, but has a higher upfront cost to employees receiving medical care.

The Clarion previously reported in May that some employees on the traditional plan could have expected to pay $1,000 a month next year for their health care plan. When more than 400 educators moved to the high-deductible plan, the district saved $1.2 million, a May 16 press release from the employee associations said.

District Director of Communications Pegge Erkeneff said costs associated with the traditional health plan were rising substantially for employees and the district. By eliminating the traditional plan, the district can apply health care cost savings to offset the district and employee monthly contributions, Erkeneff said.

The agreed upon proposal includes other benefits too. Erkeneff said the district is going to put $668,748 into the Employee Health Care Reserve Account, an account that is used to pay for health care costs that exceed what’s anticipated in a year. The district is also increasing their annual contributions offering to $800 per employee, which can be used toward medical expenditures.

Wage increases, including 0.5% for last year, 1% for this year and 2% for next year were also included in the proposal, and language was included to reflect district concerns about one-time money that’s currently tied up in a state lawsuit. If the lawsuit determines the one-time money will not come, the 2% wage increase for next year will be reduced accordingly.

Another important element of the proposal makes support staff eligible for coaching and extracurricular positions and stipends.

“We’re really happy to offer that to our support staff now,” Erkeneff said.

The associations will be traveling to schools for the next week to explain the agreement to employees, and helping them understand the offer. A vote will be taken on the agreement beginning next Monday and ending Wednesday. Once the agreement is approved and ratified, the proposal can begin to be implemented.

EdWeek: A Perennial Challenge in Rural Alaska: Getting and Keeping Teachers

Alaska, Education, News, Online, Print, Uncategorized

This story was originally published in Education Week, as part of the 2019 Gregory M. Chronister Journalism Fellowship.

As summer was waning in Alaska’s largest city, Hoonah City schools Superintendent Ralph Watkins was among a dozen or so other school officials from around the state spending a precious sunny day recruiting teachers at a job fair in a hotel conference room. Fewer than 30 prospective teachers attended the fair, and the competition for their services was intense.

Watkins was offering a $1,000 signing bonus to fill vacancies in his small district, which sits in a Tlingit village 500 miles away on the island of Chichagof on Alaska’s southeast panhandle. Other districts in the room offered signing bonuses of up to $3,000, a free laptop, free and subsidized housing, free airfare to their remote village if hired, and more.

“It’s tough,” said Watkins, who has lived in Hoonah for over four years. “I don’t want to be here right now—trying to hire. It’s hard and heartbreaking for me, but it is my job, and I’m going to make it work.”

Recruiting and retaining good teachers is difficult in many communities across the United States—especially rural ones—but in rural Alaska and its Native Villages, it can be even tougher. That’s because schools rely heavily on out-of-state teachers to staff classrooms, and many of the teachers the rural schools hire struggle to adapt to the harsh weather, isolation, high cost, and cultural differences that come with living in remote Alaska.

The problem is about to get worse. In January, the education school at the University of Alaska-Anchorage—the state’s largest teacher-preparation program—lost its accreditation. The Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation, one of two national bodies that accredit teacher training programs, revoked accreditation for all seven of the teacher-preparation programs at UAA, due to the school’s failure to meet four out of five standards set by the group.

The school graduated its last accredited class of education majors in May. And the state’s current budget crisis suggests new or improved teacher-preparation programs are not coming anytime soon. That leaves the university’s remaining education majors with the choice of transferring to the state’s other two teacher-preparation programs—at the University of Alaska Fairbanks or the University of Alaska Southeast—or changing their academic focus altogether.

Home-Grown Versus Out-of-State
Teacher staffing has been a longstanding problem in the 49th state. Annually, districts hire about 1,000 teachers, with over half hired at the five largest districts. In-state universities typically graduate a total of 200 teachers every year, far short of what schools need.

So in rural Alaska, most teachers come from out of state. In fact, teachers who are prepared in-state account for only about 15 percent of newly hired educators working in Alaska in any given year, according to the Institute of Social and Economic Research at the University of Alaska, and that share is likely to shrink in the wake of the education school’s closing.

In Scammon Bay, a small Native Village on the Bering Sea at the edge of western Alaska, a quarter of the Scammon Bay School’s teaching positions are held by people who were raised in the community. The school’s vice principal, Harley Sundown, who was born and raised there, said it’s important for students to have at least some locally grown teachers they can look up to.

“Up here, we have our local educators who do many things [other than] teaching—they also are involved with cutting fish in the summertime and doing traditional activities from Yup’ik dancing,” Sundown said. “We need people to understand what the communities are like to get the best out of every student, every year.”

The challenge with the out-of-state teachers, especially those who are new to the profession, is that they don’t tend to stay as long as their in-state peers. Many are drawn to the state in search of adventure, only to return a few years, even months, later to their home states, defeated by the weather, the isolation, or a culture with which they struggle to connect. About 80 percent of the state’s Native Alaskan students live in the rural districts.

The Hoonah district is among those experiencing high turnover this year. The rural district has 120 students and 13 teachers right now. Superintendent Watkins wanted to find eight more teachers at the job fair, which was run by Alaska Teacher Placement, a 41-year-old partnership between school districts and the University of Alaska that works yearlong to connect prospective teachers and districts.

In summer, Hoonah’s year-round population of 850 explodes to more than 3,000 as tourists come to fish, boat, and hike. What little housing is available is rented to tourists, pushing housing costs out of reach for teachers who want to continue renting from May to August. Watkins said the Hoonah Indian Association, the federally recognized governing body of the tribal members of Hoonah, is seeking grants and raising money to build teacher housing, but it will be several years before the units will be available.

“How do you make relationships with people in the community if every summer you have to leave?” Watkins said. “Hoonah is beautiful, and in summer you want to stay there, but you have no place to live.”

Seeking a Good ‘Fit’
As a result of the perennial shortage, rural superintendents spend much of their time on teacher recruitment and turnover, said Dayna DeFeo, the director of ISER’s Center for Alaska Education Policy Research, who has studied the struggles that rural Alaska superintendents experience in recruiting and retaining teachers.

She found superintendents are more interested in candidates who were a good fit, as opposed to those with exceptional credentials on their resumes. And, in initial orientations and trainings, immersing new teachers in the community is as important as any of their other educator trainings—a departure from many teacher onboarding practices in the Lower 48.

School administrators’ orientation toward community “fit” is a matter of necessity. DeFeo said teachers are more likely to leave when they’re working with students who are different from them, either ethnically or culturally.

Diane Hirshberg, a professor of education policy at ISER, agreed. The educators from the outside who’ve had the most success stayed in their rural communities in summer and participated in local pastimes, like hunting or berry picking, she noted. “They’re not the people who say ‘I can’t wait until the year ends so I can go back to fill-in-the-blank.’”

One adventure-seeking teacher from the Lower 48 who stuck around is Mary Cook, a science teacher in Scammon Bay. After retiring from a 30-year teaching career in Arkansas, Cook wasn’t ready to leave the classroom. She heard about the opportunity to teach in Alaska.

“I knew a couple teachers who filled me in on the difficulties,” Cook said. “The more difficult it sounded, the more I wanted to try it.”

Cook said the first year was tough, and she had to learn to adapt to teaching in a small community and an even smaller classroom. Now she’s been teaching in Scammon Bay for five years, and students respond differently when they see her come back year after year.

Ultimately, though, Cook said her time in rural Alaska will depend on the availability of health care.

“I’ve always said because I love it here, and I love my students, the thing that would cause me to leave would be lack of health care,” Cook said. “We don’t have any doctors or nurses and situations have developed where if you were dealing with life-threatening conditions and the weather is bad, there are just no flights.”

Teachers’ pension issues also hinder recruiting, according to teachers at the Anchorage job fair this summer. Alaska, like many other states, changed its teacher retirement system from a pension fund to a 401K arrangement nearly 15 years ago, and the teachers’ unions have expressed concern that the newer system may not yield sufficient retirement savings for teachers joining it now.

To keep teachers in the classroom, Hirshberg said, it’s also important for districts to recognize that the teachers they hire are adults and professionals, and to set up conditions for them to feel valued and lead independent lives within these communities.

At the same token, she cautioned, outsiders should not expect to walk into schools and dictate how kids should learn in rural Alaska. She said communities need to feel like they own their schools, especially so in Native Villages.

Recognizing the historical context of the state’s formation is a critical piece of that. From 1867, when the Russians were colonizing Alaska, until the mid-1900s, long after the Americans had purchased the territory, generations of students in rural Alaska were forced into missionary and boarding schools that sought to strip students of their Native culture. The multigenerational trauma of those experiences is still present, Hirshberg said.

“For some, walking into a school building brings up pain. They may not even realize it because it may not be their pain, but it may be the pain of their parents or grandparents,” she said.

“If an educator can’t see a way to reach the kids and have them be successful, [he or she] is not going to stay. We need to transform what happens in those schools and then equip teachers with the support they need, so they can thrive and the children in their classes can thrive,” Hirshberg said.

The consequences of teacher turnover and shortages can be costly in terms of both student achievement and money. ISER found it costs the state $20,431 for every teacher turnover, or roughly $20 million a year. Hirshberg, an author of the cost study, found that low teacher retention and high teacher turnover impact student learning outcomes for the worse.

Even if the state university system were able to prepare more teachers, though, it might not stem the shortages in rural areas, Hirshberg said.

The educators coming through the state’s university system tend to flock to Alaska’s largest, urban districts upon graduation.

“They don’t want to go to rural districts because a lot of our students are place-based,” Hirshberg said. “They’re older and already have families, and there are limited opportunities if you have a spouse. … There are a number of reasons why it can be difficult if you’re a more mature student to go out and teach in rural Alaska versus if you’re 22 and kind of looking for that first exciting adventure.”

Meanwhile, at the job fair, school and district administrators soldier on, even as the turnout seems to them to have dwindled over the years.

The Northwest Arctic Borough school district—which serves 11 small Alaska Native Villages in the state’s far northwest corner—was offering prospective educators $1,500 for moving costs, health, dental, and vision insurance for an entire family for $90 a month, low rent, free utilities in teacher housing, and a starting salary of $55,550. The district’s retention rate veers from 20 percent to 25 percent, leading the 1,800-student district to hire 40 to 60 new teachers annually.

Accentuate the Positive
Assistant human resources director Amie Gardner—who moved to the village of Kotzebue in the district seven years ago with a single duffle bag and $300 to her name—last year prepared welcome bags for new hires. She filled a waterproof bag with snacks, a one-pound bag of coffee and tea, stress balls, stickers with the district’s logo, an iPad holder, an eye mask to help block out the midnight sun, candies, cold and hot packs, and other goodies.

“I thought it would help with retention, as a way to welcome them to our district with open arms,” Gardner said. “We do this because our teachers are important to us and the future of our children.”

Mike Hanley, the superintendent of the 100-student Chugach school district in Alaska’s southwest coast, bordering Prince William Sound, said his district manages to retain 90 percent of teachers from year to year, more than most. The district accomplishes that by empowering teachers to be a part of district decisions, he said.

DeFeo said it was striking to find in her research that superintendents, despite their recruitment struggles, weren’t suggesting communities in rural Alaska were worse off in some way than other communities. Indeed, the administrators at the job fair said they accentuate the positive aspects of living in rural Alaska—the serenity, quiet, and beauty of living in a village seemingly on the edge of the world, the sense of community.

“Pretty much everything that happens in the communities happen in the schools—weddings, funerals, potlucks, you name it,” said recruiter Jim Hickerson, a retired school employee of Bering Strait school district, a remote community where the schools are nearer to Russia than Anchorage. “If you’re looking for shopping centers, movie theaters and restaurants and vehicles, that’s not us.”

Cook, the Arkansas teacher transplant, said her years in Scammon Bay have given her a greater sense of fulfilling her mission as a teacher than she had before. “I feel like I am able to make a difference and [that’s] a positive thing for them, and it’s positive for me,” she said. “I think I made a difference in Arkansas, too, but I think there is more need here because there is less opportunity.”

Vol. 39, Issue 4, Pages 1, 12-13

Borough issues disaster declaration as Nanwalek, Seldovia run out of water

Alaska, News, Print, Uncategorized

This story originally published in the Peninsula Clarion.

The Kenai Peninsula Borough issued a local disaster declaration Thursday on behalf of the City of Seldovia and Native Village of Nanwalek, which have both been experiencing water shortages due to drought conditions on the peninsula.

The communities of Chignik Lagoon, Chignik Lake and Tatilek are also reporting water shortages and boil water advisories.

Nanwalek, which has been taking steps to conserve water and is relying on a rapidly diminishing bottled water supply, will be out of water by Friday, according to the declaration.

The Nanwalek IRA Council declared a State of Emergency due to the impending lack of water for the community on Tuesday.

Nanwalek faces water shortages every summer, however, due to the hot and dry summer, water is running out, tribal administrator’s assistant Katrina Berestoff said.

The shortages have prompted the community to shut off water for 12 hours at a time at night, delaying school breakfasts at Nanwalek School.

Berestoff said the community received four pallets of water, with three cases of water for each household, with the help of Chugachmiut Corporation, North Pacific Rim Housing Authority and Chugach Alaska Corporation.

Berestoff said the community’s water supply depends on snow every winter.

“When it melts out too fast we kind of get a good idea that we will run out in the summer, especially if we are in a drought,” Berestoff said.

Seldovia’s council passed an emergency declaration Monday stating that record high temperatures and lack of precipitation have depleted the community’s water source. The declaration asked the Kenai Peninsula Borough and state to offer support and assistance.

Seldovia has issued water conservation notices and is taking preventive measures to limit water usage. Seldovia’s city manager, Cassidi Cameron, said less than 2.5 million gallons of water were left in the reservoir, which she estimates will last the community 16 more days.

Cameron said some of the elders in the community remember a time in the 1980s when the reservoir was depleted, but didn’t know if it was to a similar extent.

Droughts and water supply shortages were not previously a part of the city or the borough’s emergency operating plans, Cameron said. That’s going to change this fall, she said.

Seldovia’s reservoir comes from the east side of the town, and water supply relies on snowpack and rain.

“That’s our watershed,” Cameron said. “That’s what we depend on. We’re hoping this isn’t the new norm and that this is just a one-time event.”

Cameron said the community is expecting two water deliveries with 10 pallets of water next week. A gray-water station is also being set up in town, where community members can use buckets to gather water for toilets and other household appliances.

“We’re doing what we can,” Cameron said. “Hope for rain.”

The Kenai Peninsula is now in either a severe or extreme drought, according to Thursday’s updated U.S. Drought Monitor map. The area experiencing an extreme drought in the northern peninsula was expanded this week and the southern peninsula was upgraded from a moderate drought to a severe drought.

The U.S. Drought Monitor — produced in partnership with the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the United States Department of Agriculture and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration — measures droughts using five levels, level zero being no drought with abnormally dry conditions and the fourth level being an exceptional drought.

Jessica Blunden is a physical scientist at the monitoring branch at the National Oceanic Atmospheric Association’s National Center for Environmental Information Center for Weather and Climate in North Carolina. She puts together information for the drought monitor map and said more than just a lack of precipitation over time causes a drought. In Alaska, wildfires, heat and other factors are used to determine how severe of a drought the Kenai Peninsula is in.

“There has also been extreme heat there (Southcentral), and there has been more evaporation, which can have an effect and is one of the reasons we’ve gone into higher categories of drought,” Blunden said. “This is the driest (the area) had been on the drought monitor map, which has been going for 20 years.”

Blunden said before this summer, Alaska never saw anything above the moderate drought category.

“What’s happening now, especially in (the Kenai Peninsula) area, is basically unprecedented,” Blunden said.

A likely chance of rain on Friday and Sunday may offer some relief.

Lucas Boyer, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service office in Anchorage, said a couple rounds of rainfall may occur on Friday night through Saturday, with another chance of rain on Sunday. He said rainfall may be lighter in places depending on how much rain is lost in the mountains.

Eugene Petrescu, the acting meteorologist in charge at the National Weather Forecast Office in Juneau, said the peninsula has seen the driest summer on record.

The Kenai area has had no measurable rainfall since July 28. Boyer said trace amounts of rainfall were recorded in the area Aug. 6, 13 and 14, during what is typically peak rain season.

Between June 1 and Aug. 12, Kenai has received 1.51 inches of rainfall — a nearly 40% decrease in the average rainfall for the area, which is 3.88 inches of rain.

During the month of June, Kenai received 0.11 inches of rain. The average rainfall for the area in the month of June is 1.07 inches. In July, Kenai received 1.4 inches of rain, compared to an area average of 1.84 inches.

During a special borough assembly meeting, Thursday, Mayor Charlie Pierce told the assembly to expect water shortages to be addressed at Tuesday’s regular assembly meeting.