Administrator says Kivalina school could reopen March 18

Posted: Sunday, March 10, 2002

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- The chief executive of the Northwest Arctic Borough School District says Kivalina's only school could reopen March 18 -- if school officials receive commitments from the villagers to back the school's discipline policy.

In a letter responding to Department Education and Early Development Commissioner Shirley Holloway, Charles Mason said Kivalina's local advisory school board began meetings Thursday to explain, review and revise the existing school discipline plan.

Mason said the borough school board is adamant that local parents and students accept responsibilities that come with rights to attend school.

Board members don't want a temporary fix, he said.

''I don't want to apply a Band-Aid. I don't want to sweep it under the rug,'' Mason said. ''I can send subs up there and get through the year, but I want to fix it.''

Mason ordered McQueen School closed Feb. 27 amid complaints by staff members of physical and verbal harassment and flouting of school rules. Mason said the district was unable to provide a safe and appropriate learning environment due to threatening and ''assaultive'' conduct by some community residents.

Kivalina is 80 miles northwest of Kotzebue. McQueen School serves children from kindergarten through high school in the village of 377. The school has 11 certified teaching positions and about 11 more classified employees. Five teachers accepted transfers after the school closed.

Mason responded to a letter from Holloway who told Mason on Thursday she wanted a plan within a week for how Kivalina school children will finish the year.

Holloway expressed impatience with the continued closure.

''In our written and oral communications it does not appear that you are making sufficient progress toward developing a written plan or providing an educational program for all of the student in the McQueen School,'' she said.

Only local school boards can close a school. However, the state can step in if a school is not open for 180 days as required by state law.

''Your school board has not revised the current school term,'' Holloway told Mason. ''The Northwest Arctic School Board must take immediate action to revise the school calendar.''

She said the revised calendar must reflect a full 180-day requirement.

Mason assured Holloway he was aware of state law. But he said his school board is adamant that local commitments must be forthcoming to support a safe school environment.

The current discipline plan, discussed with villagers Thursday night, covers such things as attendance, tardiness, fighting, weapons and tobacco.

''They got through two items in a four-hour meeting,'' he said.

Some villagers have complained that the discipline policy is too rigid. Meetings will continue next week.

Holloway said Friday that agreement on discipline is a key to the school reopening.

''It's one of the cornerstones of that happening,'' she said.

Holloway is appointing an independent committee to review the Kivalina school closure, with the blessing of Mason, borough Mayor Ross Schaeffer and school board President Sophie Ferguson.

Carl Rose, executive director of the Association of Alaska School Boards, will head the committee. Also serving will be Alaska State trooper Andy Greenstreet; Hal Spackman, director of Mount Edgecumbe High School in Sitka; Denise Morris, president of the Alaska Native Justice Center; Ron Prewitt, a teacher at East High School in Anchorage, who has a background in rural education; Helen Mehrkins, an Education Department staff member; and Jim Orr, a Department of Health and Social Services employee from Fairbanks.

The group will meet by audio conference Monday to decide how to proceed and when to visit Kivalina.

Mason said Kivalina students completed high school qualifying exams and benchmark testing this week. He hopes to count those days toward the 180-day state law requirement.

By opening on March 18, and counting the testing days, the school year could be completed by May 24.

Mason said he has three teachers lined up who can be in the community by March 15.

''I'm working on a couple more,'' Mason said. ''We'll make it.''

He said lack of local law enforcement remains a stumbling block. The community has no village public safety officer.

''This will be a constant 'sticking point' for teachers,'' he said. ''Many do inquire about law enforcement at the time of interviews.''

In the near term, public safety should improve. State trooper spokesman Greg Wilkinson said Friday that Kobuk village public safety officer Leslie ''Otis'' Rolls will spend a week in Kivalina and that a trooper from Kotzebue will make regular stops to the village starting this weekend.

''Our hope is that the presence of a VPSO in Kivalina will help ease tensions and aid the community in getting through this troubling time,'' said Maj. Doug Norris, trooper deputy commander.

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