Fairbanks North Star Borough School board hears about impending school closures

In this still from a video conference, Fairbanks North Star Borough School District Board of Education members discuss closing a high school and an elementary school at a work session on Monday, Feb. 19, 2024. Two years ago, the district closed three schools.

School closures were the focus of a Monday night work session for the Fairbanks North Star Borough School District Board of Education. Members heard about the closures of Ben Eielson Jr./Sr. High School and Ticasuk Brown Elementary School, as well as the possibility of closing two more elementary schools.

The board talked about how students attending closing schools would be transferred next year. There are 360 students at Eielson. About 160 are in grades 9-12 and they will be assigned to North Pole High School. Likewise, the remaining middle schoolers will be assigned to North Pole Middle School.

Assistant Superintendent Sarah Gillam said some of the reasons to close Eielson were the building is only at 59% capacity, it has very high utility costs and there are problems keeping it fully staffed with some job applicants not able to get on the Air Force base easily.

“The greatest consideration when placing Ben Eielson Jr./Sr. High on this list though, was its educational programming,” Gillam said. “It has been limited in the educational offerings that it can provide to students in the core courses. There are almost twice as many core courses available at North Pole High School versus Ben Eielson. And in the elective courses, there’s more than twice as many courses available at North Pole High School.”

Gillam said moving the students to North Pole would help fill out two schools that are under-utilized.

“In shifting students, North Pole Middle capacity would shift from 69% currently to 94% with the additional students, and North Pole High’s capacity shifts would go from 58% to 75%,” she said.

Closing Ben Eielson would save the district about $2 million.

There are a lot more elementary schools in the district, and they are closer together geographically. Ticasuk Brown School, with 369 students in grades K-5, was chosen because of this.

“ Ticasuk Brown is currently at 68% utilization,” Gillam said. “Arctic Light, Midnight Sun and North Pole Elementary School would be the schools that would be impacted with boundary changes, and each of those schools has capacity to receive those students.”

The fifth graders would likely be assigned to Ryan Middle School next year.

Gillam said the building has $13.9 million in deferred maintenance, including HVAC and water problems and parking lot damage.

“ One thing that I would like to mention is that we understand that names are important for schools,” Gillam said. “And with Tic Brown, which is actually Emily Ivanoff Ticasuk Brown Elementary School, we recognize the honor of being gifted that name as a school district for one of our schools, and we would want to work to continue to have that honor associated with our school district in an appropriate way.”

For each school, the administration looked at five criteria: the condition of the building and its systems, how much of the capacity is being used, what money could be saved, what educational programs students are offered and impacts on the neighborhood.

Board member Bobby Burgess asked the administration for a chart or table that could show families how schools were evaluated for possible closing. Superintendent Luke Meinert told the board many criteria were used. The work session agenda had a working document with links to information for each school.

Meinert’s budget for next year anticipates a $59 million contribution from taxpayers in the Fairbanks North Star Borough, and the closure of two schools. That is $9 million more than last year. Without the extra money, Meinert said, possibly four schools would be closed.

“If for some reason the borough didn’t come through with that $9 million, or potentially $10 million, then additional cuts would be on the table if we didn’t have funding from the borough or additional funding from the state, which we’re still really hoping for as well,” Meinert said.

The two other schools being considered are Pearl Creek and Two Rivers.

How the bus schedules might change was also brought up, but Meinert said more details would be fleshed out in the coming months.

The board is having its regular Tuesday meeting, a budget committee meeting this Thursday, another budget work session with a public hearing next Monday, and a community forum on the school budget at Lathrop High on Tuesday, Feb. 27. There will be more budget work sessions, hearings and forums in March.

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