Story last updated at 8/28/2013 - 2:58 pm
It looks like we're going to loose our school - that is unless some magic happens real fast. There are several things pushing the school towards shutting down, and even a minor villain or two if your way of looking at the world demands that you have one, but the real story leads, just as always, straight back to money.
Certainly, there is nothing wrong with the school. Granted the building may be a bit excessive for our present needs, but it was built back when the oil money was gushing and nobody was thinking very hard about efficiency. It's the only fully accredited school in the district and our kids always do well on the standard tests that keep coming around. Everyone thinks highly of our one teacher and she is well supported by volunteers and aids. It's just that we're short about five kids.
On the whole, our little town is actually doing pretty well these days. Two businesses that just a couple of years ago were on the brink of folding are now showing a profit, there are several guys employed pretty steadily on one building job or another and a small family timber operation is making it by practicing wiser and smaller scale logging ... plus, we're having babies! In the past six years we've gained five kids by birth and three by new families moving to town. That may not sound like much but percentage-wise it's as though hundreds of new people had moved to Juneau.
Unlike what we hear about how other bush communities are shrinking, our town's population is steady and maybe even growing a little. Sometimes it's hard to tell because so many of our active residents also have another home somewhere else. The voter rolls say we're just over 100 but if you actually come out and counted us in mid-winter you may not get more than 50 or so and those numbers have not changed much in recent years. The problem is that we don't have quite enough kids of school age to qualify as a fully funded real school.
The rules say that if you've got to have at least 10 children in order to get full funding of public money to run it. As that number drops below 10, you get a smaller and smaller percentage of the full amount to pay the teacher and buy supplies, and of course, cover the expenses of running the big old building. With the price of fuel being what it is, it costs roughly a thousand dollars month for heat and another thousand just to keep the lights on.
For the past 10 years of so, we've often been a few kids short, but with a bit of creative fibbing and the willingness of the school district to be a little flexible on the matter, we've been able to squeak by. Even so, the school district has had to take money from its reserves in order to keep us going. Several times a Juneau family with a child or two would stay on an extra couple of months in the fall, just long enough for the kids to be here during the official "count" period. The kids would have a grand time going to school with our kids and would always be reluctant to move back to their regular school in Juneau. We'd breathe a sigh of relief and slip along for another year.
This isn't the first time we've been faced with the possibility of the school closing. Twice in the past few years we've been right down to the wire like this and managed pull it off. Back in 2009 we put up a website promoting the town and actively soliciting families with kids to move here. We had our 15 minutes of fame when a national news network played on it for a day or two and somehow a family on the other edge of the country heard about us and moved here with their five kids. If not for a terrible illness they would still be here and we'd home free. Two years ago a family with two boys heard abut us. They had gotten tired of the problems in their big city school. They were able to come because the dad was a firefighter and our chief's job was open.
Year after year, though, it has been a close call and the School District has kept giving us warning after warning. We've been working on it and stewing about it, well, truthfully lots of us have been stewing while a small handful have been struggling through meetings and legal papers and budgets - and more politics than they ever expected - trying to find a solution. Now we're down to the wire, again. If we don't get five more kids enrolled by the end of August we will surely have much less money to run the school and the district may decide to not open it. And that's where the magic comes in.
Once again we've been corresponding with a family from far away that is intrigued but hasn't been able to commit because they would still need jobs and a place to live, all on short notice. It didn't look very promising but then, just a few weeks ago, one young couple suddenly had an opportunity they couldn't resist and moved away, leaving their just-finished cabin vacant and available. They also had to leave their city jobs, she as city clerk and he as facilities manager so those jobs are now open and the prospective family is thinking hard. Even as you are reading this, urgent correspondence is rushing back and forth between us in an attempt to work it all out before the end of August.
Normally, it would be a fool's bet to put any serious money on all the pieces falling into place in time - normally - in the usual sort of circumstances, in a more ordinary place. But then, the very fact that we're here at all flies in the face of reason. Think about it, less than a hundred people in a little one-store town on the rocky edge of an obscure inlet with nothing to attract anyone except the beauty of the place and nothing of value except a few fish - and the sometimes-cranky company of each other. Heck, we're not even on the way to anywhere else. Yet for well over a hundred years this small, slowly changing, slowly renewing bunch of what someone once called "fishermen, professors and other misfits" has managed to keep on keeping on.
Are there any sporting types out there willing to make a small wager? Don't underestimate the magic!
As close followers of news from the bush may already know, "The Magic" that I referred to above didn't work the other night when the Chatham School District decided to close our school. The district is on the ropes financially and our little community simply doesn't have enough kids to pull in the funding dollars to cover the cost of keeping our school open.
Hard as it was to watch this happen, it was also tough watching four of the five members of the district board make the decision. They were clearly sympathetic but they saw no other way out. We could see that it hurt them to do it. One member who lives in Tenakee stuck with us to the end but the outcome was obvious from the start of the meeting.
Now what? Just now, the mood in our town is pretty subdued.
They tell us that they will re-open the school if we can get 10 students, but without a school it will hard to attract those new young families that the place needs if we are ever to have a school again.
So, what about the magic? Is it just an illusion? Not a bit of it! Every once in a while some traveler will wander through, maybe decide to linger, and before they know it the place will have grabbed a good hold on them. That's how the place is. They will bring children or have their children here. One way or another there will be enough of them. Perhaps class will be held in front of an old fashioned blackboard as they did here a hundred years ago. Magic may not be predictable, but that's why we call it magic.
Brooke Elgie writes from Tenakee Springs. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.