Student count in October will determine whether Karluk School closes.
Superintendent says Port Lions appears to be safe for this year.
The Kodiak Island School Board last week voted to proceed with plans to close the Larsen Bay School. And the superintendent of schools says the district is in a “holding pattern” as to whether or not the Karluk School will close.
The Larsen Bay decision was expected, but is no less tragic.
Without the requisite 10 student minimum, the school district won’t get state funding vital to keeping the school open. And, with local governments facing massive cut backs in revenues, the district just couldn’t afford to keep the school open. Expected or not, closing a school is like a gut punch to a community.
School District Superintendent Larry LeDoux says,
“Well, it’s tragic and horrendous to the community. Schools in Alaska, in small villages, is the focus of the community. It’s where they have evening activities. It’s where they gather. For many of them it’s where they went to school, where their children went to school. So, schools are deeply connected. Many times when the schools leave, a lot of people leave with it.”
Betty MacTavish has been teaching in Kodiak Island villages for more than a decade. She spoke at last week’s regular Kodiak Island Borough Assembly meeting. She grew up in a town with 204 people so she feels she can understand the issues that face villages threatened with school closure.
“Once you lose your school you lose your village. Both the culture, economics. All of that. So when you lose your school it’s really important, and it’s important to our villages.”
School closures are the end result of a number of chain reactions. Many in Kodiak and the villages feel the first link in the chain was changes in fishing regulations which made it hard to get into local fisheries, and even harder to stay viable in fishing out of a village. No fishing, no local jobs, no money, no way to maintain a home.
“As I talk with people, they’re very concerned losing homes. What’s happening is that when they get taken for back taxes, the homes are being purchased by out-of-state individuals who maybe use that home for two weeks. What the communities need and what they want is housing for their children to raise their families and be there. But there’s no place for those children to live and raise their families and so that’s a major concern.”
MacTavish suggested the borough try working with tribal entities to purchase village houses so kids could live and grow up in the villages.
“Because if you don’t have children, you don’t have schools, so you don’t have a viable community.”
Superintendent LeDoux said the district has worked really hard to keep village schools open. Including, absorbing the loss of state funding.
“Last year two of our schools did not make count and we carried them any. Which means it cost us a lot of money. We just can’t afford that anymore to keep schools open.”
The count LeDoux refers to is the state’s student count which takes place over a period of weeks each fall.
“In Alaska you have to have 10 students through what’s called the October Count. It’s a four-week period in which you have to maintain 10 students at least. If you only have 10 and one student withdraws the last day, you have 9.99 students. The state says I’m sorry, we’re not going to fund your school.”
That seemingly small loss in the student count translates into an immediate loss of $300,000 for school funding.
LeDoux says most school districts in the state just close the schools and lock the doors, but Kodiak is different.
“We still consider them our students. The fact that the school is closed is a bureaucratic regulation. It doesn’t have to mean that we have to let go of the students. They’re still ours.”
That means the students in Larsen Bay will still be connected to the town schools and will continue to get support from the district. Including a half-time person to help parents who now will be forced to home school their children.
The two schools that were held open by the district last year despite low student counts are at opposite extremes. Port Lions appears to have more than enough kids, Karluk is looking like it may get closed after the October Count.
“Port Lions this year, at last count has 13 kids so they’re going to be open, so we’re very pleased with that because if they didn’t make count we would have closed Port Lions this year also.”
And then there’s Karluk.
“We’re in a holding pattern for Karluk. They may close. They have seven students and they’ve assured us that there are three more that are moving in. And so we’re sort of in a holding pattern. We want to give the community every chance that we can to find those students so they can operate as a school.”
With the deadline looming, LeDoux says the district is doing everything it can to help Karluk, but ultimately. If a decision must be made, it will be made.
“We’re getting right down to the deadline where I have to tell the state. But the community’s working with us and if they make it they make it. We’ll be very happy. And if they don’t, then we’ll move through with closing that school.”
LeDoux noted that the all-important October School Count starts on Oct. 1 and runs for 20 school days.