The Aleutians East Borough is closing its second school in three years. The school board voted last week to shut down the Cold Bay School, with state budget cuts looming and enrollment on the decline.
Locals are worried the closure could put the tiny community in jeopardy.
Sandy Lopez’s twin boys, Matt and Zenny, are sixth graders at the Cold Bay School. The pair grew up in town, and celebrated their twelfth birthdays at school on Friday. Cold Bay’s four students are all in the same age group.
“It’s a real personal education,” Lopez says. “They’re very attached to each other — they’ve gone to this school their whole life, and they do very well.”
Lopez says Cold Bay has been a safe, sheltering place to raise her kids. But her family — and several others — will likely have to move away when the town’s school shuts its doors at the end of this semester.
The school has had fewer than 10 students for four years now. That means it no longer receives state funding. Until now, the Aleutians East Borough School District has been paying for Cold Bay on its own.
This year, major state funding cuts could create a half-million dollar deficit for the rest of the district’s schools. And school board president Tiffany Jackson says it would cost them an additional $211,000 to keep the Cold Bay School open.
“Nobody wants to be talking numbers, because all of our children are so important,” Jackson says. “But just economically, we didn’t think that we could absorb the cost.”
The school district hasn’t finalized its budget yet, but Jackson says they haven’t asked the Aleutians East Borough for extra money to help keep Cold Bay afloat. The borough is already close to maxed out on its local contribution — they gave the schools about $1 million this year. The district decides how to dole that money out.
Some residents have questioned why the borough couldn’t spare funds for Cold Bay, when it invests millions in capital projects elsewhere in the region. Borough administrator Rick Gifford says they can’t give much more than they already do.
“We fund the schools based upon their budget and their budget request up to as much as we are able to without going over the cap,” Gifford says. “And then we fund projects in each of the communities, hopefully to bring in economic development that will then bring in families to the communities.”
Superintendent Michael Seifert says Aleutians East will reopen the Cold Bay School if enrollment rises above 10 kids again. But some parents aren’t sure that’ll be possible.
Candace Schaack has lived in Cold Bay for more than a decade, and had hoped her two-year-old daughter would go to school there. But now, her family and most others with kids will have to relocate — homeschooling isn’t an option for parents who work. And Schaack worries the community will start to dissolve.
“It’s going to leave us with really no room for growth,” she says. “Cold Bay has so much potential … but I don’t see people moving here with a family if there’s no school.”
Schaack grew up in nearby Nelson Lagoon, which had its school closed three years ago. Enrollment hasn’t bounced back, and soon, the borough may have to tear the school building down.
“The whole village is just falling to pieces,” Schaack says of her hometown. “I hate to say that, but it really is — it’s a really bad thing for the community to have that happen.”
Cold Bay is more transient than most towns in the borough — it’s not a fishing community, or a native village, and most of its hundred or so residents are government employees. Many work at the airport, used for emergency stops by jets crossing the Pacific.
“They can land here. And then the place that has the most room and bathrooms and all of that is the school,” says teacher and principal Kerry Burkhardt. Her school is also the tsunami shelter, and a space for potlucks, open gym hours and free shelter for travelers.
Burkhardt wishes the school board had given her an extra year to try to boost enrollment. With that time, she says locals could have recruited more families to the open jobs in Cold Bay. That’s been tough with the school on the chopping block.
“We were sorry to hear and to see that the weather station hired two families with children, they learned that the board was thinking of closing and so they turned the jobs down,” Burkhardt says. “That was a great loss, and I feel as though we would have been alright.”
Now, the school building will be turned over to the borough, like the school in Nelson Lagoon. Burkhardt says she hopes it’ll be kept stocked with supplies in case it ever reopens. And she wants the district to remember Cold Bay’s proud history.
“One year, for Battle of the Books, Cold Bay took state,” she says. “We’ve had kids who had perfect SAT scores. We’ve had all sorts of marvelous community members and people that go off in the world. This school has been vibrant and important to many families for many years.”
She’s hoping their last semester will be a strong finish to help students find some closure. Burkhardt herself leaves a long legacy at the Cold Bay School — her own daughters went there in the 1990s, when there were about 40 students and many more jobs in town.
Now, her daughters are in graduate school, and Burkhardt is looking for work. She says she’s grateful for the district’s offer of a post at a different school — but she plans to move away, too.