Local News

School funding part I: Secure Rural Schools

The former pulp mill used to be a big source of money for the community, especially local schools.

The former pulp mill used to be a big source of money for the community, especially local schools.

Like most stories in Southeast Alaska that aren’t pulled out of the water or brought in on a cruise ship, this one starts here.

The abandoned pulp mill at Ward Cove is a far cry from what it looked like in its heyday, when it employed more than 500 people. Most of these cavernous buildings are in ruin now, the sounds of machinery replaced by the distant echo of trickling water.

But the pulp mill’s legacy is still felt in Ketchikan more than 15 years after it closed in 1997. If you’ve heard any of the debate about potential cuts to the Ketchikan Gateway Borough’s School District, you’ve felt that legacy.

“When a community loses its middle class, the results of that are absolutely devastating,” says Ed Zastrow.

From the engineering floor to top level administration, Ed Zastrow wore many hats at the mill when it was the lifeblood of the community here. He remembers a time when the mill would pay for the uniforms of the local softball team or help to pay a kid’s college costs with no strings attached.

Perhaps even more vital to the community was a 1908 federal policy that shared the profits from this mill, and others like it, to the communities they were in. Under that arrangement, twenty-five percent of the revenues raised from timber sales went to pay for local schools.

But as Ketchikan knows all too well, when the logging left, so did the money. The federal government helped to reimburse communities for the loss of their access to national forests with a program known as the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act of 2000. That program worked, for a while. Last year, school districts in the United States, mostly in the West, received almost 350 million dollars from Secure Rural Schools.

But now, due to constant budget battles in Washington, schools in the Ketchikan Gateway Borough may finally be out of luck.

Senator Lisa Murkowski specifically addressed Southeast a recent hearing of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.

“The federal government is broke here, we need to find longer term solutions so we don’t go from year to year with the anxiety, the stress I hear from my communities,” Murkowski said at the hearing.  “Boy oh boy, you’ve gotta have something here, you’ve got to have some way for these communities to survive. Otherwise they might go the way you have suggested that they might, which is turn into ghost towns, and that’s not a solution I think we would support.”

Secure Rural Schools was due to expire last year, but received a last minute extension in July that helped to avert a fiscal disaster in Ketchikan; schools here received an injection of more than a million dollars last year from the program.

Senator Ron Wyden, who chairs the Energy and Natural Resources committee, has publicly committed to extending Secure Rural Schools again until a long term solution can be found. But most people involved with the budgetary process here in Ketchikan are moving ahead under the assumption that the budget gridlock  in Washington will finally kill Secure Rural Schools.

“You say you’ve got this federal policy that says you can’t harvest in the Tongass because we’re just saying you can’t harvest in the Tongass,” said Murkowski. “And you have no place to go for your tax base, and you say this is going to be a temporary program until you can transition, the question is what do you transition to, where do you go?”

The trickle down of cuts from Washington to the borough to schools in Ketchikan is the source of most of the angst among parents, teachers and citizens.

Ending Secure Rural Schools, along with another federal program that compensates the borough for all the federal land in the area, will result in a whopping $2.2 million dollar hit to funds the borough gives to the school district every year. The borough has pledged to absorb most of that cut by using reserve funds.

But the Borough Assembly still plans to pass along a $600,000 cut to the school district. From there, the School Board will have to decide what is actually taken away.

A question sometimes asked, including by Senator Lisa Murkowski at the most recent Natural Resources Committee hearing, is this: if Secure Rural Schools was designed to compensate timber-dependent communities for increased regulation on national forests, will those communities be able to access the timber now that Secure Rural Schools is going away?

State Representative Peggy Wilson, who represents Ketchikan and Wrangell, is pessimistic, and just a tad critical of the political maneuvering in Washington.

“We don’t have control over what they’re doing right now and they very much want to stop economic development,” said Wilson. “Especially in Alaska, because they want to save Alaska for the rest of the United States, for people who have never been here and probably never will be here.”

Making matters worse, the Obama administration recently announced that due to sequestration, some of the funds allocated to states from last year’s Secure Rural School payments will have to be reimbursed to the federal government. Whether those funds will be retroactively taken out of the state’s reserves or passed on to the boroughs ultimately lies with Governor Parnell.

In the meantime, Ed Zastrow — who also served as city mayor for a time — says that unless Ketchikan begins to recapture some of the industry that once made this place so prosperous, the city will never again see the kind of middle class it once had.

“The amount of patronism to a bar or that type of thing, or dancing or [being] out on the town, ranging right down to can you find a shoe store to find a set of shoes fitted to your foot,” says Zastrow. “Can you really go uptown if you’re married and buy a nice dress for the missus if she’s out of those 4, 5, 6 sizes. Those things are gone because we lost our middle class. Until we get out middle class back we can pretty well enjoy the status we’re at right now.”

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