The Cooperative Extension Service at the University of Alaska Fairbanks planned to close two offices this fall due to state budget cuts – one in Anchorage and the other in Sitka. But today (08-31-16), Extension leadership announced a plan to keep both offices open.
The Sitka office will remain at the University of Alaska Southeast campus. The agent position, vacant since Professor Bob Gorman retired in 2014, will be eliminated. The program assistant position will be funded largely through grants from 4-H, the Forest Service, and other federal grants. The current program assistant, Jasmine Shaw, will continue her work offering programs to the community.
Fred Schlutt, Director of the Cooperative Extension, said this arrangement reduces the cost of running the Sitka office from roughly $25,000 a year to less than $5000. “I’ll keep a facility open for under $5000 because that’s a great win for us and certainly for the community too,” Schlutt said.
The Anchorage office will change in both location and function. The office will close its doors on October 28th and move into the Chugachmiut Tribal Consortium Building. Schlutt said this change will allow the Extension to maintain a physical presence in Anchorage, while significantly reducing the cost.
“[The Anchorage office] cost us almost $300,000 a year in operating costs. With a $1 million cut, that was an easy decision to make because that was 30% of the cut. But my goals was to try to eliminate, or rather save as many staff and faculty position s that we have as possible.”
The Anchorage office will also change in focus, converting from a district office into an “outreach center.” Classes will still be available, but taught by grant-funded faculty and staff. Among them is an invasive plants instructor, an integrated pest management technician, and nutrition educator.
The five Extension agents in Anchorage will no longer be on staff. Three of them will move to vacant positions at the Fairbanks and Soldotna offices. The fourth is transferring to the MatSu office in Palmer, while the fifth is retiring.
Schlutt said the Extension also wants to modernize distance learning, through mobile and video conferencing technology. Most of their clientele is over 45 years old, and Schlutt wants to attract a younger crowd.
“[The new clientele group] is not as prone to do face-to-face workshops, conferences, that kind of thing. They like to take courses that are offered online when they have time in their lives to do that. And they’re also very attached to, whether it’s a cell phone, an iPad, technology,” Schlutt said. “We really need to make that change, because we really have been using the same delivery method for 86 years in Alaska.”
For FY17, the Cooperative Extension was cut by $1 million. To absorb that cut, the program also laid off half a dozen staff members, reduced contracts and cut down travel and operating expenses.
Despite the depth of the cut, Schlutt is pleased the program found a way to maintain the Sitka and Anchorage locations. He added that, with FY18 budget cuts unknown, the Cooperative Extension may face future shortfalls.
Founded in 1930, the UAF Cooperative Extension Services has a particular focus on food security and safety. “How can we become more self sustainable by teaching people how to grow more of their own food supply? You can look at health issues, obesity, diabetes, the work that we do there. I think Alaska needs us more than ever before,” Schlutt said.
The Cooperative Extension has nine offices and up to 90 staff members in the summer months.