3 elementary schools to close in Fairbanks area due to low enrollment, budget challenges

Joy Elementary School in Fairbanks. Photographed Wednesday, Feb. 2, 2022. (Lex Treinen/Alaska Public Media)

The Fairbanks North Star Borough school board has voted to close three elementary schools because of declining enrollment and as a way to save money.

The school board narrowly approved the changes at a Tuesday meeting, where it also approved adjusting the district’s middle school format. Numerous people testified opposing the changes.

The three schools that will close are Joy and Nordale elementary schools in Fairbanks and Anderson Elementary School on Eielson Air Force Base. Students will be moved to nearby elementary schools, according to the district.

“Closing a school is not something that school districts do very often,” the district said in an online statement. “It can have a significant impact on families and change of this magnitude can be difficult. While a school closure will have short-term impacts, the long-term goal is to provide better and more efficient services for students.”

The schools will be closed after the current school year ends, according to a district spokesperson.

The district’s statement says now that it has a direction from the school board it will begin finalizing next steps.

The plan includes the district repurposing Nordale Elementary into a home for alternative learning programs. The district will also restructure district middle schools to encompass grades 6 through 8, while most elementary schools will become K-5 schools.

Many people who testified at Tuesday’s school board meeting said they opposed closing Joy Elementary and repurposing Nordale Elementary. Student Kyler Lanz made a heartfelt plea to save Nordale.

“I’ve gotten comfortable enough at Nordale that I am in the school musical and I play violin in the orchestra. I like these activities so much,” Lanz said. “I am grateful for the opportunity to do them at Nordale. I am grateful for all Nordale has done for me. I want it to stay open.”

Some parents questioned the decision-making process and the targeting of Nordale and Joy, which are Title I schools, a designation based on the percentage of students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. Parent Jessica Wagner told the board that Joy also has a high number of special education students.

“Having one of the highest rates of low-income families and numbers of children with disabilities, Joy provides a supportive environment,” Wagner said. “Joy also has facilities that help children with disabilities function and learn life skills. Children with disabilities are highly influenced by any change in their environment and care providers.”

School district officials acknowledged the pain the plan will cause but pointed to a roughly $20 million projected budget shortfall over the next two years. Karen Melin, the chief school administrator, underscored that the district’s budget has become misaligned with its mission.

“In short, we’re funding buildings and not students,” Melin said.

The school changes are projected to save $3 million annually. Melin defended the process the district employed to come up with them, adding that repurposing Nordale for home school and other district alternative education programs presents an opportunity.

“To be visionary as we look to the future of what choice and innovation might be,” she said. “Using a current facility to grow the programs we currently offer, is one step in visioning what the future [of] education for Fairbanks North Star Borough School District might be.”

The district’s statement on the closures said districtwide enrollment has dropped by 2,000 students over the past decade.

“Fewer students in schools reduces the amount of staff allocated to those buildings,” the statement said. “That, paired with the challenge of filling vacancies and hiring highly-qualified staff, leads to fewer educational opportunities for students.”

Board member Mathew Sampson said he’d have preferred to keep Nordale as is, but the priority is teachers.

“To retain the educators and support staff with those funds,” Sampson said at Tuesday’s meeting.

School board member Tim Doran unsuccessfully pushed for each school change to be considered independently, and for the district to come up with firm plans for repurposing Nordale and transitioning middle schools.

“Each of these components has a ramification, and I think we need to have those out in the public,” Doran said.

Doran, and fellow board members Chrya Sanderson and Erin Morotti, voted against the school closure and realignment plan. Morotti offered condolences to disappointed students and parents.

“It’s unfortunate that it’s our most vulnerable students and that we couldn’t come up with a better solution,” Morotti said.

Board members Sampson, Maggie Matheson, April Smith and board president Jennifer Luke voted in favor of the plan. Luke reflected on the vote before adjourning the meeting.

“I just want to say that it’s not easy to lead when times are hard,” Luke said. “These are the times that we have to make really hard decisions.”

The district says it “intends to absorb most staff positions into schools throughout the district. However, final staff numbers will be determined based on actual enrollment and next year’s final budget.”

Some board members anticipated that additional school closures will be required in coming years.

Alaska Public Media’s Tegan Hanlon contributed to this report.

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