Dunleavy's conflicting comments about closing rural schools

During his inauguration in Kotzebue Monday, Gov. Mike Dunleavy said there was a “misunderstanding that I had said something about closing schools in rural Alaska.”

”Nothing could be further from the truth,” he said. “My kids went to schools in rural Alaska. My wife went to school in rural Alaska. I taught in rural Alaska. If anything, I want to strengthen the educational system in rural Alaska. There will be no schools closed down by myself while I’m governor in rural Alaska.”

This led to 25 seconds of sustained applause from the crowd gathered in Kotzebue.

In a campaign event last spring in Fairbanks, Dunleavy was asked if he favored regional boarding schools as a cheaper alternative to small rural schools. I wrote about this in September and October. His comments on boarding schools took place at about the 48:30 minute mark on this video.

“Do you think that some of the villages will have to go to more regional high schools and things like that as the costs increase for having all these small schools around the state?” he was asked by a member of the audience last spring.

“Yeah, I think that’s probably gonna be the end result in your hubs like Barrow, Kotzebue, Nome, Bethel,” Dunleavy said.

“I think that’s gonna be the end result. I think it is a cost saver, but also more importantly it provides an opportunity for high school kids that they may not get in a high school with one teacher.”

He went on to explain the advantages of regional boarding high schools, citing Mt. Edgecumbe in Sitka as an example.

‘If you have some well developed robust regional high schools, such as Edgecumbe, in which you have a physics teacher teaching five preps of physics or biology or chemistry, inevitably those kids are going to get a better education and better opportunities.”

“So, I see that happening and I see more partnerships with corporations, the Native corporations, the tribal governments. I see more of that happening in the future. That would be part of, from my perspective, of a five and 10-year plan for rural Alaska’s education.”

Any discussion of closing the state’s smallest schools is politically volatile.

State law requires a minimum of 10 students to keep a school open. In 2015, while a member of the senate, Dunleavy said the state should look at every expenditure for possible cuts, including raising the minimum school size.

“I believe word (about changing the minimum) came from me talking with some folks at ASA (the Alaska Superintendents Association),” Dunleavy said in 2015. “It was just a conversation … but it’s the largest part of the budget. It would not shock me if somebody did introduce a bill. Nothing’s going to shock me.”

My column on his Bible Baptist Church remarks generated some controversy. Dunleavy brought up the subject in speaking to the Alaska Federation of Natives in October. He said he wanted to spend more money on rural education, not less.

“There is a narrative that I want to close down rural schools,” Dunleavy said to AFN. He didn’t say that he created the “narrative” or perhaps that he had spoken off-the-cuff and didn’t really mean what he said about saving money with regional schools.

He told AFN he wanted regional boarding schools to supplement small schools.

“In the hub areas, beef up those high schools that are in the hub areas. Get some dorm facilities in the hub areas, so that kids can come into the hub areas for terms as they call them, for maybe visits, or biology labs, chemistry labs, because right now they are at disadvantage,” Dunleavy said.

“What I want to do is beef up what we have in the regional areas like Kotzebue, Nome, Barrow, Bethel, so that kids can go to school there, potentially take some college classes,” Dunleavy said.

The expanded options at the rural hubs could potentially also offer vocational training. “But it’s to enhance, not to take away,” Dunleavy said.

These enhancements, while keeping small schools in place, would cost millions in added travel, facilities and staffing costs.

On Monday, he told Kyle Hopkins of the Anchorage Daily News that he would like “governmental entities,” such as the feds and tribes, to “potentially build dorm capacity in some of our regional hubs like Kotzebue.”

There is no misunderstanding about Dunleavy’s pledge on his first day in office to keep every small school open.

There is also no misunderstanding about what he said in the Bible Baptist Church last spring, endorsing regional boarding schools as a way of saving money and providing more educational opportunities.

Dermot Cole6 Comments