Erosion-threatened village school at top of state replacement list

BETHEL (AP) — A school that is in danger of being lost to river erosion because of climate change is at the top of the state’s list for the construction of a new school building.

The Alaska Department of Education put the school in the Southwest village of Napakiak, population just under 400, at the top of its priority list for replacement for the upcoming fiscal year.

However, being No. 1 on the list doesn’t ensure the community will get the funding for a new school.

“Of course, that’s completely up to the Legislature,” said Tim Mearig, facilities manager for the Alaska Department of Education.

The school is just 64 feet from the Kuskokwim River and it’s getting closer every year. Just two years ago, the school was less than 200 feet from the river.

Climate change is a contributing factor in the erosion caused by the Kuskokwim, a 700-mile-long river that becomes an ice highway for travelers in the winter.

It has been an ongoing problem in Napakiak, but the pace has accelerated in the past few years. Numerous Alaska communities face the same dilemma because they are affected by the warming climate that is thawing permafrost — permanently frozen soil — and compromising river banks.

Napakiak rose to the top of the school replacement list after the Legislature approved over $3 million in September to demolish the existing K-12 building, Mearig said. After the state makes an initial investment in a school construction project, it then receives a higher priority for future funding.

Napakiak’s dire situation also prompted a change in how the state evaluates impending disasters.

Previously, the state’s scoring system didn’t take into account whether students were about to lose their schools, but that has changed. “The situation in Napakiak drove a scoring change,” Mearig told KYUK-AM, Bethel’s public radio station.

Gov. Mike Dunleavy last month included $55 million for a new Napakiak school in his proposed budget.

If the Legislature approves funding, Mearig said the project can be completed in time to move students into the new school before the existing structure cannot be occupied.

The Lower Kuskokwim School District is hoping to gain a little time by demolishing just the junior and senior high school wings of the existing K-12 building this spring.

That would create an additional 85 feet of buffer between the river and the remaining portion of the school, Superintendent Kimberly Hankins said.

“The thought is to remove that portion and extend the lifespan of the remainder of the building for an additional, at least one, hopefully two years,” Hankins said.

Older students will be moved to portable classrooms. The plan is to move all students to these structures if the river reaches what remains of the existing school before construction of a new building farther inland.

Napakiak is about 10 miles southwest of the hub community of Bethel.


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