Dunleavy sees regional boarding schools replacing small village schools

Sen. MIke Dunleavy told a Fairbanks group earlier this year that one way to save money in Alaska and improve education is to replace small village high schools with regional boarding schools in hub communities.

“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 at a campaign event in Fairbanks in May at the Bible Baptist Church.

“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 probably 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 compared a small school to Mt. Edgecumbe, the boarding school in Sitka with more than 400 students from more than 100 towns and villages. He said the creation of strong regional high schools would inevitably provide a better education and more opportunities.

“I see that happening and I see more partnerships with corporations, 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.”

I’m not surprised that Dunleavy, a former teacher and school superintendent, has not gone into detail about the pros and cons of closing small schools. Giving wide attention to this proposal would touch off arguments throughout rural Alaska. Losing a school could mean losing the village and any proposal of this sort would be bitterly contested.

Identifying which schools to close would be no easy task, even as part of a 20-year plan. Plus, there is also the matter of whether any money would be saved because the education of younger children too small to leave home would have to be dealt with.

A 2016 report said that of the state’s 507 schools, there are 123 with an enrollment below 50 and 78 with an enrollment of less than 25 students. There were 38 schools with one teacher, 25 schools with two teachers and 37 with three teachers.

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.”

At that time he said he was aware of the potentially devastating impact of closing a school on a community.

The Juneau Empire reported, “Dunleavy said if people stop talking about changes to education policies because they’re afraid of the effects, next is a halt on changes to road projects or other community endeavors. Soon, no one is talking about anything, Dunleavy said.”

Dermot Cole3 Comments