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.

‘Building little scientists’

Alaska, Education, News, Print

This story originally published in the Peninsula Clarion.

It’s Thursday afternoon, and Megan Pike — Kenai Watershed Forum’s newest education specialist and Adopt-A-Stream coordinator — is dressing up an elementary school student like an insect. She gives the student a puffy coat to mimic an insect’s exoskeleton, some homemade antenna made from a headband, pipe cleaner legs, buggy glasses and a pair of wings made from a pillowcase. In the basement of the Kenai Watershed Forum office, Pike is using the student as an example to teach a small group of Connections Homeschool students about the anatomy of an insect, before they head outside to do some invertebrate testing.

Connections Homeschool is one of about 10 schools that participates in the Kenai Watershed Forum’s Adopt-A-Stream program, which brings watershed science and stewardship into the classrooms of the Kenai Peninsula.

The program’s original intent hasn’t changed much since its inception in the 1990s. Adopt-A-Stream seeks to engage students in their environment, teaching them about how to take care of their local creek.

“All these schools are adopting local streams to protect them and also use them as an outdoor classroom to learn,” Pike said.

Students participating in the Adopt-A-Stream program might learn how to test water quality, pH, turbidity and fish habitat. Students also practice taking down field notes and how to record observations.

“We’re building little scientists,” Branden Borneman, Kenai Watershed Forum’s executive director, said.

Sometimes, kids also learn about bugs, like Pike’s group of Connections Homeschool students. After Thursday’s classroom lesson on insects, Pike walks the students and some of their parents to a small bridge over Soldotna Creek. The group stands on the creek’s shore while Pike stands in the stream with a small net. She’s digging into the creek bottom, kicking up rocks and dirt into the net.

The creek bed samples are tossed in a bucket with some water and the children are set on a mission to look for as many bugs as they can. Students then classify and identify each bug they find. Pike reminded the students of their classroom lesson: a diverse group of bugs indicates a healthy stream.

Pike’s group found a handful of species, including caddis flies, stone flies, a couple mayflies and aquatic worms.

Educational outreach is one of the three core values of the Kenai Watershed Forum, and Adopt-A-Stream has helped make the central Kenai Peninsula a well-educated community, Borneman said.

“What other kids in the nation can say ‘anadromous fish,’ let alone tell you what that means or how our activities impact them?” Borneman said. “To me, it’s the biggest privilege we have in this community.”

Adopt-A-Stream has been teaching elementary and middle school students about their environment on the central peninsula for almost 30 years, Borneman said. In its early years, the program was first administered by U.S. Fish and Wildlife. The Kenai Watershed Forum, founded in 1997, took a role in administering the program in the early 2000s, taking over the program completely in 2013.

A Clarion article from 1994 — printed on poster board in Borneman’s office — shows students from K-Beach Elementary, the school with the longest-running relationship with the program, testing water quality in their adopted stream, Slikok Creek.

“We’ve been around long enough doing this that we’re now seeing those kids from the ‘90s and the early 2000s, and they’re becoming adults in our community,” Borneman said. “The knowledge they carry on from these programs and the watershed program’s efforts have really been truly overwhelming in a lot of ways.”

Pike said her favorite part about the program is when students take home the knowledge.

“The coolest thing is when a student comes back to you with an idea to take care of the environment,” Pike said. “Recently we had a kiddo come up and say — ‘I want to start a group to pick up trash over all of Alaska because I don’t want it to harm the animals’ — as a result of our project and class.”

The stream exploring happens all year long. Borneman said activities in the wintertime offer an additional opportunity to teach lessons about the importance of being prepared for cold weather and water.

“We even do it in snow and ice,” Borneman said. “It’s kind of inherent to the program — is teaching kids that we live in Alaska and to not be afraid to be outside. A lot of our jobs take us outside, so we see it as a fun Alaska component to make sure they have the right boots and gear and help them understand that cold water is dangerous and cold weather is dangerous.”

Borneman said recent funding from Marathon, Tesoro, Wells Fargo and an Anchorage foundation called Saltchuk has allowed the program to continue running and expanding.

The Kenai Watershed Forum tries to get into as many local classroom as is practical. At the height of the program, Adopt-A-Stream was in 30 different classrooms reaching more than 5,000 students, Borneman said.

“To me, (I want) to make sure the community understands what a privilege and an honor it is for us to be able to go into classrooms and teach kids,” Borneman said. “The significance of that cannot be overstated. I want to thank the community for how many years they’ve allowed this program to exist.”

Megan Pike, Kenai Watershed Forum’s education specialist and Adopt-A-Stream program coordinator, wades into Soldotna Creek to dig up creek bed samples for a group of Connections Homeschool students to parse through for macroinvertebrate sampling, on Thursday, Nov. 7, 2019, in Soldotna, Alaska. (Photo by Victoria Petersen/Peninsula Clarion)Megan Pike, Kenai Watershed Forum’s education specialist and Adopt-A-Stream program coordinator, wades into Soldotna Creek to dig up creek bed samples for a group of Connections Homeschool students to parse through for macroinvertebrate sampling, on Thursday, Nov. 7, 2019, in Soldotna, Alaska. (Photo by Victoria Petersen/Peninsula Clarion)

Students from Connections Homeschool look for bugs in a sample from Soldotna Creek as part of the Kenai Watershed Forum’s Adopt-A-Stream program, on Thursday, Nov. 7, 2019, in Soldotna, Alaska. (Photo by Victoria Petersen/Peninsula Clarion)Students from Connections Homeschool look for bugs in a sample from Soldotna Creek as part of the Kenai Watershed Forum’s Adopt-A-Stream program, on Thursday, Nov. 7, 2019, in Soldotna, Alaska. (Photo by Victoria Petersen/Peninsula Clarion)

Megan Pike, Kenai Watershed Forum’s education specialist and Adopt-A-Stream program coordinator, dresses an Adopt-A-Stream student as an insect in a classroom lesson on the anatomy of bugs, on Thursday, Nov. 7, 2019, in Soldotna, Alaska. (Photo by Victoria Petersen/Peninsula Clarion)Megan Pike, Kenai Watershed Forum’s education specialist and Adopt-A-Stream program coordinator, dresses an Adopt-A-Stream student as an insect in a classroom lesson on the anatomy of bugs, on Thursday, Nov. 7, 2019, in Soldotna, Alaska. (Photo by Victoria Petersen/Peninsula Clarion)

Victoria Petersen / Peninsula Clarion
                                Megan Pike, Kenai Watershed Forum’s education specialist and Adopt-A-Stream program coordinator, wades into Soldotna Creek on Thursday to dig up creek bed samples for a group of Connections Homeschool students to parse through for macroinvertebrate sampling.Victoria Petersen / Peninsula Clarion Megan Pike, Kenai Watershed Forum’s education specialist and Adopt-A-Stream program coordinator, wades into Soldotna Creek on Thursday to dig up creek bed samples for a group of Connections Homeschool students to parse through for macroinvertebrate sampling.

DOT respond to concerns over Silvertip Station closure

Alaska, News, Print

This story originally published in the Peninsula Clarion.

The Department of Transportation is responding to concerns over the closure of the Silver Tip Maintenance Station near Hope, which housed equipment and operators responsible for Turnagain Pass corridor maintenance on the Seward Highway.

In an Oct. 24 press release, Alaska Department of Transportation Commissioner John MacKinnon raised a lot of concerns and misunderstandings.

MacKinnon said the department has closed four maintenance stations in the last four years, all in response to budget reductions. He said the maintenance division is operating with $22 million less than it had six years ago.

“With these reductions, we have responded by investing in better, more reliable equipment, and more efficient chemicals to pre-treat roads for anti-icing instead of after-the-fact deicing,” MacKinnon said in the release. “We have pursued these efficiencies in order to make up for reductions of staffing, equipment and commodities. We have been successful at insulating the public from feeling the impacts of budget reductions.”

The assets from the Silvertip station are being deployed at the Girdwood and Crown Point stations, which will be taking over the maintenance of that highway. The Silvertip Station will still house equipment as well as sand and chemicals to deal with road conditions, the release said.

“We will have the resources of two maintenance stations to respond, instead of just one. This is how we have managed other station closures,” MacKinnon said.

This section of the Seward Highway will move from having intermittent 20-hour coverage to continuous 18-hour coverage, the release said. Service will be provided between 4 a.m. and 10 p.m.

“Truth is, none of the state’s highways have 24-hour snow removal coverage,” MacKinnon said. “Much of the Dalton, the Parks, and the Richardson are maintained less than 12 hours a day. We simply do not have the resources to cover all hours of the day. We never have.”

When conditions are bad, the department says it will have the ability to expand working hours, and in severe weather events there may be a temporary road closure. The release said that this practice has always been the case for the Seward Highway and all other highways.

“While we anticipate this to be a rare occurrence, the potential of a closure occurring is still there, as it always has been,” MacKinnon said. “Our equipment operators do an incredible job with limited resources. They are creative, hard-working and will always go the extra mile to help people in need. They take pride and ownership in the roads that they maintain for Alaskans. They know they are dealing with the safety of their family, friends and neighbors. Without their work ethic, we would have been feeling the impacts of these leaner budgets quite some time ago.”

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.

Voters largely skip municipal polls

Alaska, News, Print

This story originally published in the Peninsula Clarion.

Less than a quarter of registered voters cast their ballot for this year’s municipal election.

The voter turnout this year was 18.03%, Borough Clerk Johni Blankenship told the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly at their Tuesday meeting.

While this year’s turnout wasn’t far off from last year’s, which saw 18.7% of registered voters vote, this year’s turnout is the lowest in more than five years. In 2012, the turnout was just over 13%.

In 2017, during a mayoral election, the turnout was nearly doubled at 33.6%.

This year, seven out of 29 precincts had a voter turnout of 20% or higher, Blankenship said. Four of the precincts were in the cities and the other three were in vote-by-mail precincts.

During last year’s general election in November, 54.6% of registered voters in District, 29, 30 and 31 — which cover central, southern and northern peninsula communities — came out to the polls, according to official results from the Alaska Division of Elections. The official state turnout was 49.84%.

In last year’s August primary election, 25% of registered voters in District 29, 30, and 31 came out to vote.

During the 2016 general election, 65.2% of peninsula voters came out to the polls, and in the 2014 general election, 58.9% of area voters cast a ballot.

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.

Complaint issued against Alaska Yes

Alaska, News, Print

This story originally published in the Peninsula Clarion.

A complaint against Alaska Yes Inc was filed Monday by the Alaska Public Offices Commission staff, and alleges the nonprofit violated several campaign laws.

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 is running for the Nikiski seat on the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly.

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.” 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, which violates campaign law AS 15.13.050, according to the memo.

The Alaska Public Offices Commission’s complaint also alleges Alaska Yes Inc violated law AS 15.13.110(a), which requires groups to file campaign disclosure reports.

“Because it chose to influence the results of a 2019 state-wide municipal election, Alaska Yes was required to file a 30 day campaign disclosure report no later than September 3, 2019,” the memo said. “Alaska Yes failed to do so and, thereby, violated AS 15.13.110(a).”

Alaska Yes Inc advertisements contained a disclosure that said “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 during last Thursday’s hearing that Quick’s 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.

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.

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

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 Alaska Public Offices Commission issued an order last Friday morning directing Quick and his campaign to “immediately cease and desist from coordinating with Alaska Yes on advertisements that state they are ‘not authorized, paid for or approved by any candidate.’”

Two expedited Alaska Public Offices Commission hearings were held last week regarding a Sept. 18 complaint filed by Kenai resident Todd Smith, alleging Quick’s campaign was coordinating with the group, Alaska Yes Inc. Quick was listed as the executive director of Alaska Yes Inc, but testified to commissioners last Wednesday that he resigned March 25. Quick, Peter Zuyus of Homer and Kenai attorney Blaine Gilman incorporated Alaska Yes Inc on March 5. Toms, who resigned last week, testified that she mistakenly added Quick as the executive director because she was using the original incorporation documents.

During last week’s hearings, Quick testified that he resigned from Alaska Yes Inc on March 25, and has had no involvement since. Toms testified that Alaska Yes Inc advertisements were reviewed and approved through emails, and that Quick’s campaign manager Paul Huber and Alaska Yes Inc board members Nona Safra, who is chair of the District 31 Republican Party, and Wayne Ogle, a current Kenai peninsula Borough Assembly member, were corresponding in those emails.

By Tuesday night, Quick, Zuyus and Safra had not returned phone calls from the Clarion.

Last Thursday, Quick announced Huber’s resignation from his campaign. His attorney, Stacey Stone, told the Clarion last Thursday that Quick had no knowledge of Huber’s involvement with Alaska Yes Inc.

Ogle, who was formerly listed as a board member and vice president of Alaska Yes Inc, said he was not involved in day to day operations, including ad campaigns and campaign filings.

In a Tuesday phone call with the Clarion, Ogle said he resigned from Alaska Yes Inc last Thursday. He said he was not happy with how Quick’s resignation with the organization caused confusion and wasn’t interested in the direction Alaska Yes was going.

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.

Rain fails to ease drought on Kenai Peninsula

Alaska, News, Print

This story originally published in the Peninsula Clarion.

The Kenai Peninsula still remains in a drought, despite continued rainfall. The northwest portion of the peninsula is in an extreme drought, while the remainder of the peninsula is in a severe drought, according to Thursday’s updated U.S. Drought Monitor map.

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 abnormally dry conditions with no drought, and the fourth level being an exceptional drought.

Since June 1 to date, rainfall has been at a near-record low in Southcentral Alaska, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor’s summary of their Thursday findings.

“There has been little or no recovery in soil moisture, even at a 2-inch depth,” the summary said.

The summary noted that several communities continue to go without fresh water sources, or their reserves are close to running out.

“The primary concern of the communities is whether they can fill their water storage before winter sets in next month,” the summary said. “Therefore, until a longer stretch of wet weather becomes established, no improvements were made.”

Dan Nelson, the emergency manager with the borough’s Office of Emergency Management, has been working closely with the communities of Nanwalek and Seldovia. Both communities are south of Homer and have been suffering water shortages for weeks, due to unprecedented drought conditions.

Nelson reiterates the summary’s findings, saying heavy precipitation is needed to boost the communities’ water reserves.

Seldovia’s water source is an open reservoir, feeding into a modern treatment plant that distributes water to the community.

The Village of Nanwalek uses an open reservoir that is treated and distributed to the community.

Nelson said Nanwalek is completely reliant on bottled water, which is being shipped in. The Chugachmiut Native corporationand the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District have been shipping bottled water to the Nanwalek. In the short term, this has been the only identified solution for the needs of the 260 residents.

Seldovia has about two weeks before their water supply runs out, but water is also being shipped in, with 5 gallons going to every household. He said the area has seen some rain, and water levels in their reservoirs have risen only slightly. The two communities’ local governments declared emergency declarations in August, and since then both communities have undergone significant water conservation efforts. The borough’s local disaster declaration was issued Aug. 29 in regards to the water shortage and remains effective for 90 days.

Nelson said the only short-term solution to the water shortages is to ship water into the communities. The borough has been looking into long-term solutions, but Nelson said that will require bringing in engineers and water experts who could assess long-term solutions for the communities, in case they face similar conditions in the future. That assistance is likely to come from the state, he said.

Mayor Charlie Pierce visited Seldovia Sept. 9, according to a post from the Kenai Peninsula Borough’s Facebook page.

This fall, Nelson said the cities and the borough will be implementing drought conditions into their emergency operating plans.

“We’ve never seen a drought like this before, so we’ll have to do some research,” Nelson said.

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.

School starts without a new contract

Alaska, Education, News, Print

This story originally published in the Peninsula Clarion.

The school district and two employee associations have not reconvened after efforts to come to a contract agreement fell short Aug. 13.

School began Tuesday for majority of the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District, and teachers are starting another school year without a contract.

For over a year, contract negotiations between the borough school district and the associations have snagged on the rising cost of health care. A previous agreement effective through June 2018 remains in use for employees without contracts.

After negotiations ended Aug. 13, the Kenai Peninsula Education Association and Kenai Peninsula Education Support Association were waiting for the district to analyze the cost of their most recent proposal, requiring an estimate from the broker. The broker was unable to get the estimate to the district by last weekend, and the two employee associations are waiting on a response from the district, Kenai Peninsula Education Association President David Brighton said.

The associations hope to meet with the district soon, and reach an agreement, but if no agreement can be made the employee associations said they will be ready to strike in September, a post from the Kenai Peninsula Education Association said.

After contract negotiations with the district hit a standstill, peninsula educators and staff voted May 22 to strike, with more than 75% of certified staff voting “yes” on a walkout. The associations planned to choose a strategic time to start the strike.

District employees cannot be fired for participating in a legal strike.

What happens if a contract can’t be settled and employees go on strike? In an August press release from the district, communications liaison Pegge Erkeneff said a work stoppage would result in an emergency closure of schools.

If and when the associations decide to call a strike, they are required to notify the superintendent 72 hours in advance. The superintendent will notify staff, parents, community partners, contractors and others of the strike’s start date.

In the event of a strike, every school in the district will be closed, including Connections Homeschool, charter and alternative schools and distance delivery programs, the district’s release said.

The emergency school closures will impact all before- and after-school activities, sports, community school activities, pools and any rentals or usage of school facilities, the district’s release said.

The cancellation of all high school sporting activities are subject to the rules of Kenai Peninsula School Activities Association, affiliate region boards and Alaska School Activities Association, and contests may or may not be able to be made up, according to the release.

School session days and staff work days that are missed due to a strike must be made up and the number of days schools are closed due to the strike will be added to the end of the school year in May.

In the event of a strike, daily updates will be issued and official district communications will be posted on the district’s website and digital media platforms.

These changes will only occur if the superintendent receives a strike notice from the associations.

Citizen science beluga monitoring effort to begin on Kenai, Kasilof Rivers

Alaska, News, Print, Uncategorized

This story originally published in the Peninsula Clarion.

The Alaska Beluga Monitoring Partnership is offering residents the opportunity to help scientists understand more about Cook Inlet beluga whales.

The partnership — a collaboration of several organizations, including Beluga Whale Alliance, Defenders of Wildlife and the Alaska Wildlife Alliance — seeks to help facilitate beluga monitoring from citizen scientists. From Aug. 14 to Nov. 15, monitoring events will take place in sites at the mouth of Twentymile River and at Bird Point near Girdwood, at Ship Creek in Anchorage and at the Kenai and Kasilof Rivers.

Kimberly Ovitz, a citizen science monitoring coordinator with the partnership, said anyone can be involved with the effort.

“You don’t have to be a scientist or a researcher,” she said. “It’s open to anyone. You don’t have to have had experience observing belugas in the past, or really any other animal. It’s really just a great opportunity for people to come out and learn more about their ecosystem, enjoy being outside and to contribute conservation recovery of this species in Cook Inlet.”

Volunteers will learn more about the Cook Inlet beluga whales and their conservation needs, receive training on how to identify and record data on beluga distribution and behavior in the field and participate in beluga monitoring sessions at one of the partnership’s sites. Data collected will be shared with researchers and federal agency personnel to inform beluga research and management. The data will also be incorporated into NOAA’s Beluga Sightings Database and Ecosystem Portal.

The Cook Inlet beluga whale population has declined by nearly 75% since 1979, from about 1,300 whales to an estimated 328 whales in 2016, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the federal agency that has managed the Cook Inlet beluga population since its 2008 listing as an endangered species. According to the agency, the Cook Inlet beluga whale population is declining by 0.4% each year.

Scientists are exploring a number of factors that may be inhibiting the population recovery, including noise. Belugas have sharp hearing. They use sounds to find each other and echolocation, a series of sound signals called clicks, to find food.

“Pervasive noise throughout the year and in different locations in Cook Inlet could inhibit beluga whales’ ability to hear, communicate, and find food,” a June article from NOOA Fisheries said.

The article said scientists believe noise from a variety of human activities may be a concern for the whales’ recovery.

This year, monitoring will take place at the Kasilof River, where citizen science monitoring hasn’t existed in the past. Ovitz said the Kasilof River is an important area to build data.

“Kasilof is also this really important area that we really do not have a lot of data on, if any data at all,” Ovitz said. “We really don’t have much more information on how frequently they use that (river), outside of people calling in and reporting opportunistic sightings.”

Ovitz said that having a monitoring site at Kasilof will help fill current knowledge gaps, while also being able to learn more about how the whales use a river that has human activity going on around it.

The beluga monitoring project was originally spearheaded by Miami University graduate student Suzanne Steinert in 2017 in collaboration with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Steinert’s project took place at the mouth of the Twentymile River at the Turnagain Arm. Ovitz was hired on as a research fellow with National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration shortly after, and established a monitoring site at the Kenai River in the spring of 2018. Since then, both Ovitz and Stiner have been fielding monitoring efforts in those parts of Cook Inlet.

Ovitz said the project found belugas were very active in the Kenai River.

“We were seeing beluga activity in the river every day and that really affirmed that this an important feeding site,” she said. “We know it’s important for this population, which also happens to be endangered. On top of that, it’s an area heavily used by people.”

She said the Kenai River has the potential for a lot of interactions between belugas and humans, and that it’s important to know what those interactions look like and how often they’re occurring.

Ovitz said during her spring 2018 monitoring efforts on the Kenai River, she had about 10 to 12 members of the public helping out periodically. Stiner’s project at Twentymile River has about 15 to 20 volunteers. This year, the partnership was formally established after the group received funding from NOOA Fisheries to hire on a coordinator. The partnership is pushing to solidify and standardize protocols for monitoring methods, as well as increase the number of citizen scietists in the region, especially on the Kenai Peninsula.

“We’re really shooting to have this combined effort and get more people on board and really have this collaboration functioning,” Ovitz said. “We’re hoping this fall for a really big push to increasing citizen science monitoring in the area, and if things go well, we want to keep it going in future years.”

While Ovitz said every year is an important year to be watching the belugas and gathering data, this year is especially important. In May, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Associations Fisheries announced a gray whale unusual mortality event. As of July 26, the association has reported a total of 191 whale strandings from Mexico to Alaska, with 30 being in state. The cause of the deaths is still undetermined, but several of the whale necropsy results show signs of emaciation, according to an article published by NOOA Fisheries.

“Because we’re seeing this mortality events in larger whales and in other marine animals it is really important to look at other components of this ecosystem that make up the Kenai River and Cook Inlet and try to understand how this event we’re seeing might impact other members of that ecosystem, like beluga whales,” Ovitz said.

Interested citizen scientists can find more information about getting involved in the initiative by visiting akbmp.org.

‘Poor man’s polo’ finds its way to the Kenai

Alaska, News, Online, Print

This story originally published in the Peninsula Clarion.

On Thursday nights, Maya Johnson can be found getting her horse geared up for a game of polocrosse. Johnson first heard of the team sport — a combination of polo and lacrosse — when she was riding on the equestrian team at Dartmouth College.

Johnson returned to Alaska several years ago, bringing the sport with her.

Her former riding instructor and director of riding at Dartmouth, Sally Batton, quite literally wrote the book on polocrosse. She visits Alaska once a year, offering polocrosse clinics for people like Johnson, who are passionate about the sport.

“She started teaching our group up here and everyone got pretty into it,” Johnson said.

Johnson said there are also polocrosse groups in Homer and Anchorage.

“We haven’t actually played them, but that’s our goal,” Johnson said.

In polocrosse, there are three people and horses on a team. Similar to soccer, one teammate takes offense, the other defense and another plays the midfield. Instead of lacrosse rackets, the sport has specially made rackets with a small netted basket, used for scooping up the ball from the ground.

The horse community is pretty small on the central peninsula, Johnson said.

“We pretty much all know each other,” Johnson.

On Thursday night, several people came out to play. Johnson said the group who comes to play is getting bigger.

“It gets really competitive,” Johnson said. “I like seeing everyone laughing and trying to push everyone out of the way.”

Johnson coordinates her Thursday games at Ridgeway Farms, where the riding arena almost meets exact regulation size.

Abby Ala, owner of Ridgeway Farms and Johnson’s grandma, said polocrosse is an accessible sport for anyone who enjoys riding.

“This is a poor man’s polo,” Ala said. “It’s fun. You don’t have to have a ton of money. You don’t have to have a lot of experience. You can be really young and do it and you can be older and do it.”

Johnson said residents interested in learning more about the sport can contact her via the Kenai Polocrosse Facebook Group.

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EdWeek:On the Snowy Tundra, Alaska Students Bridge Differences and Eat Moose Snout

Alaska, Education, food, News, Online, Print, Uncategorized

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

Outside of Alaska’s few urban pockets, a constellation of tiny communities, scattered across a rugged landscape, is home to more than half of the state’s residents. Alaska is among the nation’s most rural states—99 percent of its land mass is considered so. Resource extraction, transportation, food insecurity, and climate change have strained and complicated relationships between the state’s first inhabitants—members of 229 Alaska Native Villages—and non-Natives who, for the last three centuries, have come from all over the world to seek opportunity on one of the continent’s last frontiers.

Many familiar with that history see education as a powerful means for defusing tensions among the geographic and cultural groups. That’s what programs like Alaska’s Sister School Exchange aim to do, enlisting middle and high school students to build bridges, by offering them the chance to visit one another’s communities. Founded in 2001 by the Alaska Humanities Forum, the program was initially funded through Congress and a private foundation. Since 2007, the U.S. Department of Education Alaska Native Education program has fully funded the exchange. As of this year, more than 2,000 students have traveled to 88 communities across the state to participate in the free, weeklong exchanges.

Seven years ago, I was one of those students who left her comfortable, urban home in Anchorage to fly 300 miles to New Stuyahok to participate in the exchange. I was a shy high school junior and fourth-generation Alaskan with my own set of misconceptions about my rural neighbors.

The exchange gave me the chance to understand the challenges of life in rural Alaska—like the feeling of being completely isolated and the pressures of subsistence living in an ever-changing natural environment—while also showing me what it’s like to be part of a tight-knit, culturally rich community where I made friends for life.

This April, I made the trip again, this time with an Education Week photographer and four Anchorage students and their teacher to get a sense of the kinds of academic and cultural lessons the program might offer to communities across the country with different needs and lifestyles.

Prepping for the Adventure

The program begins each year long before the travel takes place. To participate, teachers must apply and then spend several months with their students, preparing for the visit. The exchange program provides a cross-cultural learning curriculum designed by educators, both Native and non-Native, where students study their own community and family histories as a step toward understanding their exchange-program peers. The curriculum becomes primarily experiential once the students and their teacher arrive at their sister schools in early spring when students shadow their peers from class to class.

Our two-hour trip this year covered more than 500 miles. Two planes and several snowmobiles were required to reach the destination: Scammon Bay—an isolated Native Village of 500 people, nestled on a mountain a mile or so from the Bering Sea Coast in the southwestern part of the state.

The East Anchorage High School students—Genavieve Beans, Starlyn Phillips, Jonathan Gates, and Nuulau Alaelua—and their math teacher, Ellen Piekarski, each had their own reasons for wanting to make the trip. Genavieve and Starlyn, who are both sophomores, are Alaska Native and wanted to see what life would’ve been like if they had grown up in a Native Village.

Jonathan, also a sophomore, was looking to escape the bustle of Anchorage and connect with his foster and adoptive brothers at home who are of Native heritage. Twelfth grader Nuulau, whose parents are from a rural part of the Independent State of Samoa, sought a way to connect to her own background.

“My parents, they came [to Alaska] and kind of really did struggle, and it’s like they had to fit into society. So I really didn’t learn much about my own culture,” she said. “This program gives me an opportunity to learn about my roots and other people’s roots, too.”

Their teacher, Piekarski, grew up in a military family before settling in Texas and eventually moving to Alaska. She wanted the opportunity not only to visit rural Alaska, but to see what teaching in a rural classroom would be like.

World of White

On the gravel strip that is Scammon Bay Airport, we climbed out of the nine-passenger airplane. Outside, everything was white, except a handful of colorful buildings and the navy-blue squiggle of the nearby Kun River. A thick, white fog hovered overhead, making it nearly impossible to tell where the snowy tundra dissolved into bleached sky. The whoosh of the wind and the buzz of the snowmobiles—the local mode of transportation—replaced the familiar sounds of Anchorage’s busy streets.

We were greeted by a handful of students from Scammon Bay School. The only school in the village, it serves about 200 K-12 students, all of whom are Alaska Natives. The temperature was about 20 degrees, and our student hosts wore their school sweatshirts, sweatpants, and sneakers—puffy weather gear and heavy boots covered us.

Jeremy Brink, a charismatic high school senior who plans to pursue a career in teaching, led the tour through his village. Despite his ease and connection with the community, Jeremy hasn’t lived in Scammon Bay long. He left his hometown of Bethel, a nearby hub, last year to seek a change of scenery and a deeper connection to his Yup’ik culture.

As we trudged through the snow, Jeremy took us inside the health clinic where he explained, to the surprise of the Anchorage students, how the village doesn’t have doctors or nurses. Health aides, whose only medical training is a 12-to-16-week program, are the community’s only source of health care. He explained how a storm last winter prevented planes from landing for a week, endangering patients in need of advanced medical attention—a stark contrast to Anchorage, where the big hospitals serve patients from across the state. Scammon Bay also has no police force. The community’s sole crime deterrents are village public safety officers—who receive 18 weeks of training and are hired by a consortium of tribal leaders from 56 Native Villages with oversight from Alaska State Troopers.

At the only general store, the students were shocked by high prices. They oohed and aahed at a small bottle of ranch dressing, no more than 12 ounces, which cost nearly $6. This, despite having learned about the high cost of rural living in their pre-visit prep—perhaps further proof that there is no substitute for first-hand experience. (In 2012, I felt the same shock when we spent $80 on ingredients for chocolate chip cookies on my exchange trip to New Stuyahok.)

Jeremy’s 45-minute tour ended in the center of the village, at the local stream or carvaq, as it is called in the locals’ native Yup’ik. He invited us to pack our water there, just as the community does. (For residents of the Lower 48, that means to haul water for home use.) That’s something none of us would dare try at Ship Creek, the stream that cuts through downtown Anchorage.

Jonathan stayed with Scammon Bay Principal Melissa Rivers and her family in district-owned housing adjacent to the school. The rest of us, including Genavieve and Starlyn, Nuulau, and Piekarski, occupied a district-owned apartment.

Hands-On Learning

In science teacher Mary Cox’s class, the students got a hands-on lesson from two visiting scientists—Lauren Bien and Chris Iannazzone from the Prince William Sound Science Center in Cordova, about 650 miles southeast of Scammon Bay. The scientists used an inflatable pool, several mystery liquids, some animal furs and feathers, and a handful of cleaning supplies to show the students how oil leaks from tankers and pipelines affect marine ecosystems. Then they let students experiment with potential clean up methods.

“Things that educate that aren’t really book or paper—we try to do as much hands-on as we have available or invite people in,” said Cox, an Arkansas transplant who’s been teaching at Scammon Bay for five years. She said she incorporates hands-on lessons herself by incubating salmon eggs in the classroom to teach about the life cycles of salmon.

Over the next few days, the Anchorage students engaged in other activities reflective of life in the bush. They learned to comb a musk ox pelt for wool or qiviut, skin an otter, and clean, inflate, dry, and cut seal intestines into sheets to sew together into a traditional Yup’ik raincoat. For the final task, students held opposite ends of a pale, slimy strip of seal gut, while blowing into it to inflate the pink, rubbery tube for drying.

At a potluck organized by principal Rivers and members of the community, the students sampled local foods like beluga, seal, herring eggs, smelt fish, and smoked salmon. Moose snout, a local delicacy, was prepared by the school’s chemistry teacher, Kristian Nattinger, who was in his last semester with the school after two years. Together, the students held up their oily, cream-colored, pieces of moose snout cartilage. In unison, they each bit a piece of the meat off the thin layer of hairy snout skin.

“It tasted like chicken,” Starlyn reported.

The locals’ deep knowledge of subsistence food-gathering practices impressed the Anchorage students.

“When you think about people in the bush you think, ‘Oh, they just hunt, they might not know much,’ but in reality, they know a lot more than we do, and they can do a lot more than we can,” Nuulau said. “It made me realize how I need to value things more.”

Macy Rivers, a softspoken 11th grader from Scammon Bay, appreciated the chance to share her life with her urban peers.

“It is important for them to see how we live out here because they could know who we are and how we live and just to see how we grow up and see how different it is living in a village than a city,” she said. “There are no cars, no highways. You know everyone.”

One-Way Exchange

The Anchorage and Scammon Bay students were already sharing Snapchat usernames and bonding over similar music tastes when they learned the rural students wouldn’t be visiting their homes in Anchorage this year. The reason: Conflicting activities prevented the Scammon Bay students from completing the required preparatory curriculum.

The news disappointed students from both communities. “They are frustrated now that they’ve met the students in the community. They’re like, ‘Can’t they just come?’” Piekarski said of her Anchorage students.

But she and other participating educators later said the curriculum is essential to a smooth experience for students, with its emphasis on first understanding one’s own culture, learning different communication styles and how to share cultural differences without offending, and developing an openness to new foods and experiences.

“I wasn’t worried about my students feeling comfortable in the community,” Piekarski said. “Now I see it helped them be prepared.”

“I would absolutely love it if every high school student could do these activities,” she said. “I think it would be an amazing way to improve relations with people from different communities.”

On her last day in the village, Genavieve said four days wasn’t enough. The Good Friday holiday cut their weeklong visit to four days. “I feel like I got cheated out of the experience.”

Nuulau said her time in Scammon Bay has motivated her to visit villages in her parents’ Samoan homeland.

“I learned to not judge and assume a lot of things because even I thought I knew everything before coming [to Scammon Bay],” she said. “When I heard about the trip, I thought, ‘Is it really worth coming here?’ Now, I wish we had more time because it’s just so great. I know why people are here and stay here.”

When I returned to my Anchorage high school in 2012 from my visit to New Stuyahok, I felt both more connected and knowledgeable about my home and neighbors, while also more aware that I had barely scratched the surface of what Alaska has to offer—which only propelled me to discover more of my state.

Leaving Old Perceptions Behind

And I shed some misconceptions about life in Alaska’s rural Native Villages. Like many of my peers, I had believed people in rural Alaska were to blame for the state’s high rate of drug and alcohol abuse and violent crimes. Alcohol-induced mortality rates are more than double in Alaska than for the United States as a whole, with 23 people per 100,000 citizens in Alaska compared to a nationwide average of 9.5, according to 2016 data from the Centers for Disease Control. For Alaska Natives, that rate is more than seven times the national average, with 81.7 people dying per 100,000 residents. What I didn’t understand then was that resources for health care, mental-health services, and addiction treatment are scarce beyond Alaska’s urban areas.

These mindset changes are not uncommon. Program statistics show that 90 percent of participants showed a change in perception following their travels, said Kari Lovett, the SSE coordinator.

For Piekarski, the added benefit was that she got to try her hand at substitute teaching in a math class at Scammon Bay. She found that while the technology and instructional resources there were more limited than in Anchorage, “you can still teach and impart wisdom.”

East High, which draws students from a wide range of racial and ethnic groups, is already one of the nation’s most culturally diverse high schools. But Piekarski said her experience in Scammon Bay further honed her sensitivity to students’ different cultural backgrounds back in Anchorage.

“This experience is definitely going to change how I teach, particularly with my students that are Native Alaskan, and I’ll have some of them that, you know, grew up in a village and then came to Anchorage,” she said. “A lot of the things that students do that used to bug me, I realize, hey, that’s part of their culture.”

Vol. 38, Issue 37, Pages 1, 14-16

Cooper Landing Businesses feel impact from fire, smoke

Alaska, News, Print, Uncategorized

This story originally published in the Peninsula Clarion.

Smoke from the Swan Lake Fire — which was ignited by lightning June 5 and has grown to over 100,000 acres — has had an effect on several communities in the Southcentral area, from Anchorage to Homer.

In the small town of Cooper Landing, winds have blown the fire’s smoke into its valley, affecting the community’s local tourism industry.

Yvette Galbraith, an administrator with the Cooper Landing Chamber of Commerce, said there has been a quite an impact on Cooper Landing because of the smoke. She said many businesses had cancellations and many patrons tried to reschedule for later dates. No businesses closed down, and everyone stayed open, she noted.

“From my understanding unless you had respiratory issues, many were able to still go out and do their activities, just at an adjusted level or time of day,” she said.

She said it was tough having the area be portrayed as constantly smoky.

“So when the weather broke or mornings or afternoons were clearer, folks missed out enjoying the Landing,” she said.

Galbraith said only heavy windstorms impact trips, but business still operate in rain or smoke.

“Skies are clear now, and it is absolutely beautiful in Cooper,” she said.

Katy Borchers is a Cooper Landing local and manager of Alaska Heavenly Lodge. She said the lodge has had to deal with only one cancellation, but said a smoky Cooper Landing was not the experience she wanted her guests to have. “… (Where) you can’t even see the mountains across the river,” Borchers said.

Borchers was raised in Interior Alaska, where wildfires are common. She’s been living on the peninsula for 10 years now, and said she’s never seen anything like this.

“Because of the geographic features, the smoke just rolls in and sits in the valley here with the river,” she said. “It’s going to have an economic impact for sure, especially in our little community.”

She said she understand wildfires are part of summer and is understanding in regard to local agencies allowing the Swan Lake Fire to burn, ensuring it’s safer in the future. “But, it’s difficult to swallow when it’s 100,000 acres,” she said. “This is where we all live and are raising our families. I have to monitor how much my 6-year-old plays outside.”

Despite the smoke, Borchers said guests have been fantastic and understanding. She said they’ve been forthcoming with guests and updating them on fire activity that may impact any excursions their guests may go on. Cooler weather and shifting winds have offered relief to the community this week, she said.

“We’ve all been getting out as much as possible, while the smoke is gone,” Borchers said. “We’re letting guests know when they should plan to be outside.”

The small community is a popular fishing spot, located at the headwaters of the Kenai River. The community experienced a banner opening for sockeye salmon on the Russian River this month. Erick Fish is an owner and guide of Fish and Sons Kenai Charters. He said despite the incredible fishing season the area is having, he has seen his business impacted by the smoke.

“(The smoke) got us a little bit,” he said. “We’ve had a few cancellations, not too much. There is so much salmon running, so people suffered through it.”

At the Kingfisher Roadhouse, a restaurant sitting near the shores of Kenai Lake, business is down by around a third, Chef Katherine O’Leary-Cole said.

“But, we’ve heard it’s much worse at other businesses,” O’Leary-Cole said. “Thank goodness smoke is clearing. Hopefully, we can salvage something from this season.”

Many independent travelers decide where they’ll visit when they get here. Borchers believes many of those travelers avoided the Kenai Peninsula because of the Swan Lake Fire.

“With the fire, we lost a lot of those independent travelers,” she said. “They chose to go somewhere else. There is going to be an impact, but we’ll weather the storm.”

‘Everything is on the table’

Alaska, Education, News, Online, Print, Uncategorized

This story was originally published in the Peninsula Clarion.

Gov. Mike Dunleavy vetoed $130 million in state funding for the University of Alaska system on Friday. Now, UA President Jim Johnsen said programs, faculty and entire campuses are at risk, and tuition increases are a possibility should an override to the governor’s veto fail.

“We’re doing our damnedest to navigate through this so that it doesn’t impact our students,” Johnsen said. “Everything is on the table, $134 million is huge. This cut cannot be met by ‘oh, let’s close a program here, let’s tighten our belt here.’ It can’t be done like that.”

Dunleavy’s funding cut is on top of a $5 million reduction already authorized by lawmakers.

Johnsen said the veto was a surprise.

“It quite frankly was a surprise when we heard,” Johnsen said. “We met with the governor over the spring and we went over ideas on how to strengthen the university. We didn’t think he would persist in this huge cut to our budget.”

Rep. Gary Knopp, R-Kenai/Soldotna, said the cut to the university would be “financially devastating.”

“How do you take $130 million from the university without an analysis?” Knopp said.

Sen. Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, also opposed the governor’s veto of the University of Alaska budget. A retired college professor, Stevens’ district includes Homer, Kodiak and Cordova, all cities with community campuses.

“I don’t see it surviving after a cut like that,” Stevens said. “We’re talking about personnel, about a lot of professors being fired … I’m absolutely opposed to that veto of the university.”

When asked where he stands on the governor’s vetoes, Rep. Ben Carpenter, R-Nikiski, said via email that he’s “committed to standing behind necessary reductions in government spending to better the long-term fiscal health of our state.”

Sen. Peter Micciche, R-Kenai/Soldotna, did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Rep. Sarah Vance, R-Homer, also did not respond to emails or a phone call asking for comment.

Since Friday’s veto, the university has taken measures to reduce costs in the short term.

The system has issued furlough notices across the state to 2,500 employees. Furloughed employees are able to take two weeks of unpaid leave, or use 10 days of unpaid leave within the next six months.

Johnsen said the university has also issued hiring and travel freezes.

The veto is the largest cut the university has faced in their over 100-year history. The veto of $130.35 million is in addition to the $5 million cut the Legislature approved in their budget, resulting in a 41% total reduction in last year’s funding for the university system. The university relies on the state for about 40% of its funding. Other funding sources for the university budget include revenues from fees and tuition, investments and land sales, as well as research grants and contracts.

Excluding UAA, UAF and UAS, closing the 12 community campuses in the university system would only save the university $38 million.

“The 40% (from the state) is definitely core funding,” Johnsen said. “It’s where we hire faculty and staff. You have to use this funding to go get that other money.”

The university has sustained cuts in four of the last five years, with a loss of more than 1,200 staff, he said. Johnsen said this cut has the potential to reduce funding from other resources.

“Given the he extent of this cut, it’s not just limited to state funding,” he said. “If we lose faculty we’re going to lose the research grants they bring in; we’re going to lose the students that those faculty taught because there would be fewer courses, fewer programs, fewer sections — actually the cut is going to be substantially more than the governor’s reduction in our general fund budget.”

With private funding sources, Johnsen said, the university system is advocating for an override of the veto, which will require a three-fourths vote from state legislators by July 12.

He says many legislators support the university, but it’s a close call.

“There’s a small number of legislators on the fence,” Johnsen said.

Many state legislators, and Dunleavy, have attended and received degrees from the University of Alaska, including Micciche.

If the veto is sustained, Johnsen said the university system’s Board of Regents will declare financial exigency at their July 15 meeting, which will enable the board to expedite cuts that need to be made. By July 30, the board will have a plan for cuts, Johnsen said.

“Between July 15 and July 30, tough decisions would need to be made about what campuses are closed, what programs are closed across the University of Alaska,” Johnsen said.

The Kenai Peninsula College, the Kachemak Bay Campus and other regional campuses could find their way on the chopping block. Johnsen said the Kenai Peninsula College costs $6.3 million, and 20 similarly priced campuses would need to shut down to break even with the veto. Community campuses received their own appropriation in the budget, which was not vetoed by Dunleavy. Johnsen said these campuses — which receive university system support for human resources, financial aid, information technology, facility management, university relations — could not sustain themselves solely on the community campus appropriation.

“They could not operate — they don’t have the horsepower to operate with that money,” Johnsen said. “… They cannot operate on their own. We’re looking hard at what those costs are that that appropriation will bear.”

University of Alaska Anchorage Chancellor Cathy Sandeen echoed that point.

“We cannot keep the community campuses harmless, because the main campuses — we provide a number of services they cannot provide themselves,” she said. “We won’t be able to do that under the current budget scenarios unless those campuses pay us for those services, and if they cannot pay us, we will have to stop doing them.”

Sandeen noted that students at community campuses also take classes through distance and online education offered by the main campuses. Support of online courses offered at KPC and KBC also comes through UAA, such as for computer programs and platforms.

Sandeen said UAA could lose about 700 academic jobs, including potential jobs at the community campuses, if the veto stands.

“It’s sad to think about it — 700 people losing their jobs,” she said. “There are no replacement jobs in the state. People are going to leave the state of Alaska — smart, professional, committed people.”

University programs that get federal or non-state support won’t be affected by the veto, except for those grants that require a state match. The Kachemak Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, for example, is funded through the UAA Alaska Center for Conservation Science, which receives some federal support.

“The extent to which this is funded through federal grants, those will not be affected,” Sandeen said.

Knopp says he doesn’t think the Kenai Peninsula College will be too greatly impacted because of the separate appropriation, but, he said the campus “will have impact.”

There is potential for the university veto to ripple beyond the university. Mouhcine Guettabi is a regional economist at the Institute of Social and Economic Research at UAA. He studies Alaska’s economy and its drivers, produce, forecasts and more, he said. When Dunleavy’s proposed budget was announced, Gutteabi was asked to present his work on the economic impact of various state budget options. After hearing of the vetoes, Gutteabi created a “very basic and quick assessment” on their potential impact to the economy, which he has posted online, he told the Clarion Tuesday.

In his analysis, Gutteabi said the proposed vetoes total about $450 million, which should amount to at least 4,500 of jobs lost in the short run.

“Actual job losses may be much larger if the agencies affected all lay off workers,” he said in the analysis.

Just the cut to the university system “essentially pushes the Alaska economy back into a recession,” he said.

“This tells us that once we account for all the cuts and their indirect and induced effects, there is a very strong likelihood that the economy will dip back into a recession,” Guttaebi posted on Twitter.

Stevens said legislators opposed to the vetoes are counting noses. The first vote will be to override them as a whole, and if that fails, try overriding them one at a time, he said. Stevens said he has been getting public opinion messages all week.

“This morning I had 150 new messages. I thought I dealt with them last night,” he said.

A week ago, many messages urged Stevens to back a $3,000 dividend. Now the message is “For Heaven’s sake, save our university. Save our senior programs,” he said.

Legislators have until July 12 to decide if they will overturn Dunleavy’s veto.

Reach Victoria Petersen at vpetersen@peninsulaclarion.com. Homer News reporter Michael Armstrong contributed to this story. Reach him at marmstrong@homernews.com.

New chef brings fresh menu to Cooper Landing

Alaska, food, News, Online, Print, Uncategorized

This story originally published in the Peninsula Clarion.

Chef Katherine O’Leary-Cole has only been in Alaska for two months, and her ambitious menu offers something fresh for diners at Cooper Landing’s Kingfisher Roadhouse.

Nearly half of the food is vegetarian, with one whole side of the menu offering plant-based options, most of which could also be considered vegan or gluten-free. She was offered the job, her first chef de cuisine position, in January and spent every spare second she had planning out her menu. Her yearslong cooking career and love of plant-based foods influenced the menu.

“My long history of being interested in plant-based foods started the moment in clicked in my 8-year-old brain that shrimp have a poop line, because they were animals,” she said. “That’s it, I love animals. No meat, ever.”

Her stance on eating meat has since relaxed — she used to refuse things like chicken stock and marshmallows — but now will occasionally indulge in a meat delicacy such as sashimi or foie gras. “I gravitate towards plant-based meals, but will definitely eat a chicken entrée I mistakenly cooked for a wrong ticket pickup or eat a beef stew if my grandmother cooks it for Christmas,” she said.

O’Leary-Cole didn’t go to culinary school, but she’s spent years in the kitchen. She previously worked at a restaurant in Arkansas, called Tusk and Trotter. She spent time teaching an Italian-themed wine pairing and vegetarian four-course dinner class at a culinary store in Arkansas. She planned a series of vegetarian open-fire dinners as a pop-up restaurant that took place at her cabin. She traveled around to different cities working in the best restaurants she could find. She also volunteered to cook a vegetarian dinner for 300 guests to support her local culinary school.

When plans in Arkansas fell through, O’Leary-Cole had no obligations, and sought a new adventure in Alaska.

“I was trying to think ‘what is the coolest thing I could do with job, my life, my work’ and I thought ‘I’m going to go to Alaska,’” she said. “I had heard tidbits here and there from people who’d come up for seasonal jobs and how beautiful it was.”

The very first Alaska job ad she found was Dominic Bauer’s, owner of Kingfisher, which has been in Cooper Landing for over 20 years.

Offering as many vegetarian options on a menu in Alaska as O’Leary-Cole has comes with its challenges. At the restaurant she was working at in Arkansas, which she says was in a somewhat rural area, she said she got food deliveries every day of the week, and several grocery stores to choose from if something was needed last minute. In Cooper Landing, her closest fully stocked grocery store is an hour away and produce orders come only once a week.

“When that produce gets here, often it has traveled thousands of miles, resulting in much higher food costs, lower quality produce and lower environmental sustainability,” she said. “As a chef committed to the idea of offering a diverse plant-based menu alongside traditional roadhouse fare such as burgers, pot pies and brownies with ice cream, these produce challenges simply mean that it’s time to get creative.”

She’s also challenged herself with creating vegetarian dishes meat eaters will be interested in.

“While only a small portion of the population may consider themselves strictly vegetarian, there are many more people that consider their health and the health of the environment when they make their dining choices,” she said. “It’s time for mainstream restaurants and chefs to move past hummus, salads and portabella mushrooms as the only choice for those looking for an alternative to meat.”

She said she’s been surprised how those plant-based options are being received. She said close to half of customers order off the vegetable-based menu.

O’Leary-Cole also pulls some inspiration for her menu from her southern heritage, like her cornbread with bacon jam.

Kingfisher is only open for the season and come September, the restaurant will shut their doors and O’Leary-Cole will return to the Lower 48, where she’ll pick up her van in Seattle and drive cross-country. She said she’s planning to return next summer.

District staff resignations and retirements highest recorded

Alaska, Education, News, Online, Print, Uncategorized

This story originally published in the Peninsula Clarion.

Facing potential state, local and district budget reductions, many non-tenured teachers are considering employment elsewhere.

To date, 86 certified staff and administrators resigned or retired, the highest number in the years the district has been tracking the data, Pegge Erkeneff, communications liaison for the district, said in an email.

Thirty seven out of those 86 have served the district for 15 years or more, 24 served 20 or more years.

“A disturbing development we noticed this year is a rise in the number of resignations from our staff, in part due to the fiscal uncertainty state budgeting caused to the school district this year,” Erkeneff said.

For the last four years, an average of 72 teachers resigned or retired from the district annually.

At the beginning of the new semester Gov. Mike Dunleavy proposed deep cuts to education, worrying some residents, especially school districts, across the state. This spring, borough assembly and school board meetings were dominated by residents, teachers, principals, school board members and even students who pleaded for education funding support to give non-tenured teachers more certainty.

Days before the school year ended, May 16, the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District Board of Education approved contracts for 62 non-tenured teachers. Due to budgetary reasons, nine non-tenured teachers were not able to retained, Erkeneff said.

“Throughout the spring, our non-tenured teachers did experience uncertainty, and we were happy to issue 62 contracts and receive approval from the school board during a special meeting May 16, a few days before school was done for the year,” Erkeneff said.

Erkeneff said some employees leaving the district are leaving the state, too.

“In contrast to anticipated retirements, several of our valued staff noted that the fiscal instability of our state and subsequently in our district is a reason why they are leaving now,” she said. “They are not leaving our district for other districts in so much as they are leaving the state to go elsewhere.”

At an April school board meeting, James Harris, an English teacher at Soldotna High School and the 2017 Alaska Teacher of the Year, offered public comment regarding his recent resignation and departure from Alaska.

Harris said he felt he didn’t really have a choice.

“With the mayor’s proposed cuts and the governor’s proposed cuts, we would be hurting and we would lose our home,” Harris said. “On top of that, there has been seemingly very little support from the community.”

Teachers leaving the district can cause ripple effects with the district’s projected enrollment. Erkeneff said many of the district’s younger staff have children in local schools. Lower enrollment could mean even less funding from the state next year. In the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District, a loss of 50 to 100 students might be spread over 15 to 20 schools, from the 42 schools across the district.

“If we experience a decline to projected enrollment that drove staffing decisions this spring, we potentially end up over-staffed, and experience a decrease in state funding based on the 20 day count in October that determines state funding, which is also linked to the local or Borough contribution to education funding,” Erkeneff said.

Despite uncertainty with the state budget heading into the summer, state statute requires school districts to let their staff know in May whether or not they have employment for the next year.

“All of our teachers know whether or not they have a contract for the school year beginning in August,” Erkeneff said.

She said 10 teachers were not retained because they were hired after Oct. 10, which presents another state statute issue, Erkeneff said.

“We are in the process of starting to hire back some of those teachers who were laid off,” Erkeneff said.

While teacher resignations were highest this year, support staff employee retirements and resignations are lower this year, Erkeneff said.