Local leaders press Dunleavy on school funding

Governor hears concerns over pre-K, bond debt reimbursement

Gov. Mike Dunleavy addresses Electrify Alaska! Conference attendees. (Oct. 25, 2021) Photo by Zachary Snowdon Smith/The Cordova Times

Gov. Mike Dunleavy met with school and city officials at a public roundtable at the Cordova Center Monday, Oct. 25. The meeting took place during a single-day visit by the governor to attend the Electrify Alaska! Conference, also held at the Cordova Center.

Roundtable attendees included Mayor Clay Koplin, City Manager Helen Howarth, Vice Mayor Cathy Sherman, City Councilwoman Anne Schaefer, Native Village of Eyak Tribal Chair Mark Hoover, Prince William Sound Science Center President and CEO Katrina Hoffman, Cordova School District Superintendent Alex Russin, U.S. Forest Service Cordova District Ranger Steve Namitz, Alaska Department of Fish and Game Commissioner Doug Vincent-Lang and Alaska Department of Natural Resources Deputy Commissioner Brent Goodrum.

During the 30-minute discussion, Dunleavy quizzed community leaders on Cordova’s demographics and its available resources, and heard their concerns about falling city revenues, a lack of affordable housing and limited access to early education.

Russin argued vigorously for the importance of pre-kindergarten education, which the school district does not currently offer. Previously, pre-K education was available to some children through a lottery, though in 2019 there were more than twice as many lottery entrants as available spots. There are probably more than 60 pre-K-aged children in Cordova who are either in daycare or are not in any type of educational program, Russin said.

“If our goal is to have kids reading fluently by the third grade, it takes more than just an entry level into kindergarten to start on that process,” Russin told Dunleavy.

Sept. 22, the Cordova School Board passed a resolution urging the Alaska Legislature to fund universal pre-K education.

Additionally, Cordova’s school system must have the infrastructure to serve families that grew up in the town, moved away, and are now moving back to raise children, Russin said.

Schaefer emphasized the issue of school bond debt reimbursement, which she described as hugely consequential to the community as a whole. School bond debt reimbursement by the state has been reduced from about $900,000 in recent years to about $420,000 for 2021, school board officials said.

“It trickles down to the community members here, and it’s already an expensive, sometimes challenging, place to live, so those added things… just make it more challenging,” Schaefer told the governor.

Additionally, while Mt. Eccles Elementary School occupies a recently renovated facility, the Cordova Jr./Sr. High School building is one of the older high school buildings in the state, and will require significant renovation at some point, Hoffman said.

Dunleavy raised the possibility of consulting the Catalog of Federal Domestic Assistance to find sources of federal assistance for early childhood education. The CFDA is a free-to-use directory containing information on federal agencies and on federal programs such as grants and loans. The CFDA website is easy to navigate and could be of significant help to Cordova, Dunleavy said. The CFDA can be accessed online via www.sam.gov.

Work on a 2022 city budget has been complicated by a consistent decline of city revenues, Howarth said. Revenues have fallen by 25% since 2012, with raw fish tax income declining and sources of state and federal assistance running out, she said. The city’s attempts to counterbalance this fall in income have included a 6% “sin tax” on alcohol, tobacco and marijuana.

“As we’ve been slowly seeing those things go away, we’re in a position where we have to cut service or reduce expenditures somehow, and we’re really putting a squeeze on the city in that way,” Howarth said. “Every taxable thing you could imagine, we have figured out a way to tax it.”

“I’m glad you don’t have a tall person tax,” quipped Dunleavy, who is well over 6 feet tall.

From left, Mayor Clay Koplin confers with Gov. Mike Dunleavy at a public roundtable. (Oct. 25, 2021) Photo by Zachary Snowdon Smith/The Cordova Times

Electrify Alaska! Conference

Directly after the roundtable, Dunleavy addressed Electrify Alaska! Conference attendees at the Cordova Center’s North Star Theatre, where he described Alaska as a potential world leader in renewable energy development.

“It’s my goal that Alaska be known as an energy giant — not just an oil and gas giant, but an energy giant,” Dunleavy said.

Dunleavy’s visit to Cordova also included a tour of the town and a shopping trip to Copper River Fleece.

“What the governor said he appreciates about Cordova is that, when we come with complaints or concerns, we have several options ready — that gives him something to work with,” Koplin said prior to Dunleavy’s visit. “He doesn’t get that very often from a lot of communities: they’ll lay out their problems, but they won’t really have a fix.”

The Oct. 25-28 conference included discussion of topics such as electric boats, marine renewable energy projects, and technologies to heat homes with ambient energy. The conference was hosted by Cordova Electric Cooperative in partnership with Beneficial Electrification League, National Rural Electric Cooperative Association and the Natural Resources Defense Council.