As their public school deteriorates, Sleetmute residents worry their community isn’t far behind

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Severe ice damming, roof damage and a bulging wall are signs that the Sleetmute school is facing a very real threat of potential collapse. (Emily Schwing/KYUK)

“Let me show you why I’m so smart and my school is so junky,” said five-year old Nolan Adam Smith, breathless, as he enthusiastically prepared to give a tour of the Jack Egnaty Senior School in Sleetmute. It’s where students from kindergarten through 12th grade attend public school in the village.

Smith showed off the reading chairs in his kindergarten and preschool classroom. “If you’re sitting in the black chair or this other chair, you have to be reading,” he said.

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Among the stops on 5-year-old Nolan Adam Smith’s tour of Sleetmute’s public school is the gymnasium door. Students are not allowed on the other side because the foundation that holds up the back wall of the gym is structurally unsafe. (Emily Schwing/KYUK)

The walls are bright yellow, the trim around the windows is royal blue. Smith’s tour features his desk, his math book, and even the ceiling. He points upward and his face is serious. Up in the corner, three ceiling tiles are missing. Others are stained brown, the color of dark tea. “It’s been leaking,” he said. And then points to the floor. “That bucket’s there because it’s been leaking.”

More than a decade on the major maintenance list

The Kuspuk School District has applied to the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development’s Capital Improvement Program since at least fiscal year 2012 to fix a roof leak. The district’s funding application has never risen high enough on a ranked list of major maintenance projects to be funded, though. And while school officials have lobbied for the money, that roof leak has grown worse and caused other problems that have spread throughout the building.

“This is a wall stud. Look at that. There’s, there’s nothing there,” said Taylor Hayden as he pointed to a vertical piece of lumber inside the back wall of the school’s now-abandoned woodshop. The stud itself is crumbling and black with rot. “And then you see that header beam there, that goes out to cantilever the porch over the roof and that’s just completely rotten,” he said.

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Taylor Hayden points out a series of wall studs underneath the school gym that aren’t attached to anything any more. Many are split down the middle. In 2021, an architech recommended Sleetmute’s school be condemned. (Emily Schwing/KYUK)

It’s not just the woodshop that’s now closed. Due to safety concerns, the boys’ bathroom and the gymnasium also cannot be used. An architect warned of structural failure last year. If that happens, it would knock out the building’s heating system and electricity as well.

Hayden has deep connections to the school. His two daughters go to school in the building. His wife is the head teacher, and he’s in charge of the School Advisory Council, which is kind of like a parent-teacher association. He’s also become something of a default maintenance man. The school district has a maintenance crew, but they’re based 110 river miles and 80 air miles away in Aniak. “Sometimes when something’s gotta get fixed right away and maintenance is a plane ride away, whoever’s handy and available just gets called on,” he said.

At risk of catastrophic collapse

In 2021, an architect told the Kuspuk School District that the back of the building, which includes the woodshop, was likely to collapse, especially with additional loading as snow builds up on the roof in winter. So Hayden set to work, installing a handful of two-by-six studs to reinforce the back woodshop wall. The fix was supposed to be temporary; that was two years ago.

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All that’s holding up the exterior wall of a woodshop at the back of the school in Sleetmute are some two-by-six studs that were added for reinforcement two years ago. The repairs were meant to be temporary. The insulation inside the wall is moldy and there’s visible water damage in the ceiling and the header the temporary studs support. (Emily Schwing/KYUK)

The window in the shuttered shop is visibly off-center. Long cracks run across the glass panes, and the entire casing is covered in black mold. From outside, the window is boarded up. The entire wall is bulging outward under the weight of giant, cascading icicles that have become a giant frozen waterfall on the outside of the building. All of that ice-damming is the result of a poorly vented roof, a problem also outlined in the school district’s multiple CIP applications to DEED.

What’s happening underneath the school may be even worse than the molding, rotting, and collapsing walls. There are a few inches of standing water under the woodshop. At least one foundational footer is entirely inundated. At the bottom of the back wall Hayden temporarily reinforced, there’s only rubble where there should be concrete footers to support the weight of the building. “Yeah, like someone took a jackhammer to it,” Hayden said.

On the opposite side of the building, underneath the gymnasium, the vapor barrier plastic and insulation have been pulled away to reveal wall studs. They’re entirely disconnected from a header that is supposed to hold up the gym floor. At least half a dozen are split down the middle and sticking out awkwardly. They’re not holding up anything at all.

“Had we got the roof fixed 15 years ago we wouldn’t be talking about fixing this wall or the foundation underneath it,” Hayden said. “So for me, mostly it’s just frustration that it seems nothing is done and we’re just getting overlooked.”

He’s not the only one in Sleetmute who feels forgotten.

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Agnes Sanford points to a photo of herself in an old Kuspuk School District yearbook. The vice president of Sleetmute’s tribal council, she has many memories of the local public school, which her father helped build in 1979. She attended the school in the 1980s, and her son and granddaughters now do so too. (Emily Schwing/KYUK)

“I have my son Neil. I have grandkids here,” said Agnes Sanford, vice president of the Sleetmute Tribal Council. Her dad helped build the Jack Egnaty Senior School in 1979. She went to school here in the 1980s. “For me, this school is very important. I think of it as for the kids. I just worry about having to be, to where it falls apart and collapsing because where would our kids go to school?” she said, catching her breath and holding back tears.

“I feel like us upriver people are just being neglected,” Sanford said. “And that just upsets me very much. The thing for these kids is education. If you want them to get anywhere, well, help, you know,” said Sanford.

Sanford sits in the atrium of the school under 30 framed photos of smiling Elders. Many have long since passed away. Her cousin, Tribal Administrator Frank Egnaty, sits with her. The school is named for his grandfather. “Well I remember, was it fifth grade, Agnes, where we had a carnival here?” he asked. “We came in first place dancing, and cousin Phyllis and Uppa Jack came in first place to Wooly Bully,” he laughed at the memories.

A school is more than just a school

In many rural villages across the state, schools are more than just a bunch of classrooms. They are the social center of a community.

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An atrium was added on to the original Sleetmute school in the 1990s. Today, the framed and smiling faces of 30 Elders look down on students as they eat breakfast and lunch and pass through a short hallway on their way to class, the bathroom and a cozy library. (Emily Schwing/KYUK)

Back in the 1980s, people in Sleetmute used to gather at the school for spring carnival. In the 1990s, Elders and youth from other upper-Kuskokwim River villages came here to share wisdom and traditions. People got together to play basketball and to watch basketball games. Local fundraisers were also held here to pay for school field trips and other events. Since then, the building has deteriorated and students can’t even have recess in the gym.

“The gym was really important to them,” said Sanford. “I mean, school is important to them, but when it was time for break and stuff, oh the kids would be so excited because they get to play dodgeball and basketball,” she said.

Her son, Neil Sanford, is in 10th grade. She said that he may not graduate from high school in his village because he’s thinking about going to boarding school in Sitka.

Neil isn’t only missing out on social gatherings and sports. The woodshop has been closed for five years, so there are no carpentry or welding classes. “Well, you can’t really make up for that. There’s not much we can do anymore, since our gym and half of the building’s been closed down,” he said.

The school is also Sleetmute’s emergency evacuation center. In years past, when the Kuskokwim River flooded during spring breakup, people have sought safety in the gym. Now it’s structurally unsafe and closed to the public.

The tribal council’s community building makes up for some, but not all of what has been lost as more and more of the school becomes unsafe. But Egnaty said that the community is “really in turmoil.” And he’s short on words to explain what life in Sleetmute would be like without a school. “Without the school, without, what’s the next step?” he wondered. “We’re gonna fight until the school is repaired. I know that the council will do whatever we can.”

Exactly what the tribal council can do is not clear. It wrote a letter of support as the school district continues to try to find funds through DEED’s application process. But it’s been more than a decade since the district first asked for a roof repair.

Now the expense of fixing what’s broken is far more costly. So is the risk to the 17 students, two teachers, and one full-time employee who continue to use the building every day without a Plan B. There’s nowhere else for anyone in Sleetmute to go to school.

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