The sound of life going on is missing.
August 10, 2015 1:46 PM   Subscribe

"The twins’ mother, Sandra King, held her sons tightly, then returned to her post at the Grant Aviation ticket counter. She said she’d be joining them in California later. The rest of the family went out to the tarmac. Kremer was left leaning against an educational display detailing the natural wonders of the Izembek Lagoon. “Well,” he said. “I guess I’m the last kid in Cold Bay.”
posted by anastasiav (12 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
What an awesome story about such a lonesome place.
posted by Diablevert at 2:05 PM on August 10, 2015 [2 favorites]

What a sad story. I don't understand why they felt compelled to burn the books and throw away the microscopes - were they worried there would be unsanctioned, radical learning?
posted by gingerest at 3:54 PM on August 10, 2015 [3 favorites]

It does seem terribly shortsighted to simply trash the school. On the other hand, as is pointed out, if there's no school, who will move there with their kids? On the gripping hand, the original shortsightedness was the Alaska state legislature mandating a minimum of 10 students. There just can't be that many kids and schools that it would save an amount of money worth arguing about. Millions of dollars maybe, but likely less than a rounding error in the overall budget.
posted by ob1quixote at 4:58 PM on August 10, 2015

Maintenance isn't exactly free in the lower 48, and you'd better believe it's no cheaper in the Aleutians. And it's probably more expensive to ship dated books and microscopes to anywhere they could be reused from there than they're actually worth. It's not as though they can draw from the city's rich tax base to fund either of those efforts.

I don't like it either, but I sure don't see a world of better options.
posted by mhoye at 6:55 PM on August 10, 2015

The legislature had to make some sort of limit for the number of students. There are hundreds of villages with no road access. The cost of building and maintaining a school where materials can only be barged or flown in is very high. It's not the number of kids, it's the number of villages. But I also don't see why any materials had to be dumped.
posted by kerf at 8:03 PM on August 10, 2015

mhoye, the building is still in use by the town, so it isn't like they had to trash the contents. The appropriate thing to do would be to use part of the building to store the items that weren't of use in other schools (and weren't so out of date as to be useless.)
posted by tavella at 8:52 PM on August 10, 2015 [1 favorite]

kerf: “The legislature had to make some sort of limit for the number of students.”
I just don't see why.

The per-pupil allocation is $5,880 on 128,495 students, although there's a complicated formula for calculating how much districts actually get [PDF]. Total outlays are $1.42B for FY15 [PDF]. I spent longer than I should have messing with converting the PDF of school enrollments to try and figure out how many students and very small schools we're really talking about, but 0.5% of the $1,202,030,569 FY15 allocation is more than $6M, or enough for more than thousand students at $5,880 each.

My point being, a few million dollars on a ten-figure budget shouldn't be worth arguing about. Not spending even as much as a hundred grand to keep open the only school in an important village, no matter how remote, seems like the definition of penny smart and pound foolish.
posted by ob1quixote at 9:54 PM on August 10, 2015 [1 favorite]

Ugh, this is such a hard problem for tiny places in Alaska, even the ones on the road system. A teacher friend of mine got a job at a school in a tiny community a couple hours outside of Anchorage; she is one of 2 teachers in a K-12 school that has about 20 kids and in 2008 or so was hovering around 10 and in danger of closing. A family with 4 kids was wooed into town somehow to save the day, but they're all still anxious about numbers even though things are now better. A school is the center of community life in a place like that, and its closing is devastating and absolutely predicts further decline as it becomes impossible to attract anyone with a family to what jobs do exists in a place like that.
posted by charmedimsure at 1:35 AM on August 11, 2015

The per-pupil allocation is $5,880 on 128,495 students

The article says that the Cold Bay school had an annual budget of $211,000 to educate 4 students (around $53,000 per student). The overall average presumably doesn't apply when you are scaling it to such a small student body.
posted by phoenixy at 2:02 AM on August 11, 2015

I'm reminded about that NYT article from a few days ago about the Radical Faeries . . . this would be a perfect situation for some kind of intentional community. The article makes the point that "Cold Bay will endure -- the airport and refuge ensure it must" -- how many isolated, rural, resource-rich places are there that also have vacancies for dependable long-term jobs, some with government benefits yet? You could come up with eight or ten like-minded families, some of the adults could take refuge and airport jobs to maintain cashflow, the rest could hunt and pick berries and preserve salmon as described in the article, and their kids could repopulate the school.

Of course, there's the darkness. And the isolation. Hope you like each other.
posted by ostro at 8:22 AM on August 11, 2015

A fine article; thanks for posting it. “You burned the books? Why did you have to burn the books?” Why indeed.
posted by languagehat at 9:31 AM on August 11, 2015

I grew up in a small town in Northern British Columbia. Nowhere near as remote as Cold Bay, but faced with somewhat similar problems. When I started school in the early 80s, there were three classes -- kindergarten, grades one through three and grades four through seven -- and about 50 kids in the school. High school students were bused about an hour to the nearest city for grades eight through twelve.

By the time I finished elementary school, they'd already lost the separate kindergarten class as enrolment drifted below 40 kids. And then below 30. The school board started talking about closing the school years before they actually did it. Everyone knew what it meant -- Bear Lake would die if they closed the school. Who would move to a town where your five year old would have to spend 2 hours a day on a bus to get to kindergarten, especially on roads that were treacherous for much of the year?

They finally closed the school in 2005. Last I heard, there are only about 8 school aged kids left in town. The town hasn't died yet, but the people who live there now are mostly new retirees. Either people who've lived there a long time and are now retired or people who retired elsewhere and moved there for the cheap, cheap, cheap housing. Older retired people move into town, for better proximity to doctors and services. The population slips every year. It slipped more than most the year that one of the two saw mills shut down.

I don't have very fond memories of Bear Lake, but I hate that the decision to strangle it to death was made by a school board. I don't fault them personally for their choice -- it costs a lot of money in maintenance to keep a building open to educate less than 2 dozen kids, and if you don't think that much maintenance could possibly be necessary, you should know that it was only a year after the school closed that the building collapsed in a snow storm -- but I hate that our system of government gave them that choice to make. They mostly represented the interests of the 80k people living in the big city. They had to make a much larger budget balance, and our tiny little town was just a drain on resources they could more efficiently allocate elsewhere. It might have been the right decision for them, but it was so very wrong for my home town.
posted by jacquilynne at 8:03 PM on August 14, 2015 [1 favorite]

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