Win Gruening: School boards must learn to adapt to changing demographics

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By WIN GRUENING

Parents and teachers throughout Alaska are reminded frequently of the need to adapt to new ways of teaching and ever-changing curricula.  Mostly, we’re told, it’s due to societal and cultural shifts in our country that must be addressed.

I wonder if the school boards and administrators promoting these changes have ever considered adapting to their reality – one of declining enrollments and under-utilized schools.

One need not look too far back in history to realize this isn’t new.

The closure of Capital School in downtown Juneau decades ago offers one example and demonstrates how such situations can ultimately benefit the community. 

Capital School was an aging structure with declining enrollment and high per-pupil costs.  After a long and contentious battle, its students were folded into other local elementary schools and the building eventually became offices for the Alaska Legislature. Similar transformations took place with the nearby Scottish Rite Temple, The Behrends House, and now the Assembly Building, all of which are essential components of Juneau’s Capitol Campus.

We learned then and should realize now that the health of our schools depends on the vitality of our economy and community demographics.

Recognition of this has now dawned on two major school districts in Alaska.  

Fairbanks closed three elementary schools and eliminated 121 positions this year, largely because the district has lost 2,000 students.

The Anchorage School District recommended closing six elementary schools next year as it attempts to reconcile a projected $68 million budget shortfall and a continuing loss of students.

There are various reasons for why this is happening but school funding isn’t the primary one. ASD Superintendent Jharrett Bryantt specifically cited the declining community birthrate as one of the factors. ASD CFO Jim Anderson defended the cuts saying that it would also help the district increase efficiency and potentially make services more readily available to students.

State demographers note in a recent ADN article that Alaska’s population has been aging and Anchorage and Fairbanks’ populations have notably shrunk over the past decade.  

The Juneau School District (JSD) is once again facing a similar challenge. While a school board sponsored economic report in February 2022 projected a decline of almost 1,200 students over the next ten years, the Juneau Board of Education has stubbornly refused to act. According to the report, “JSD enrollment declined in 14 of the last 17 years; the district now has 20 percent fewer students than in 2004. The enrollment decline has been driven by demographic factors – principally declining births”. 

Juneau City Manager, Rorie Watt, in an April 4, 2022 memo to the Juneau Assembly and the Juneau Board of Education, warned of negative demographic trends and aging school structures. He suggested that it was “appropriate to add potential school closure into the mix of the discussion of facility renovations.”

Watt noted that such discussions will be difficult (and no doubt emotional) but necessary, nonetheless.

To keep open a school with much higher average per-pupil costs hurts students through its drag on the district budget. It selfishly ties up resources that can be used to improve the quality of education for all students.

Some may find school closures disheartening, but they also provide an opportunity for the local government and school board members to examine an array of options. A phenomenon sweeping the country now is the re-purposing of government buildings into other uses.

While Juneau’s two high schools and some elementary schools are under-utilized, these discussions need not be limited to school buildings. One of Juneau’s three libraries and its city museum could also be examined for repurposing or more effective use of space.

As Juneau’s demographics change, state offices and employees continue to dwindle, and work-at-home policies become the norm, it’s imperative that we all begin to adapt to this new reality.

Better to get creative now to save these buildings for other uses before we’re forced to bulldoze them later.

Policy makers should realize that blaming school ills on lack of funding will not change the basic fact that fewer babies are being born and that local taxpayers and state revenues are not a bottomless piggy bank. 

After retiring as the senior vice president in charge of business banking for Key Bank in Alaska, Win Gruening became a regular opinion page columnist for the Juneau Empire. He was born and raised in Juneau and graduated from the U.S. Air Force Academy in 1970. He is involved in various local and statewide organizations.

Reasons for ballot rejection: Signatures, postmarks

Win Gruening: A poetic moment in Alaska history, with Don Young and Nick Begich III

11 COMMENTS

  1. We live in an area I’d declining population in general. Most kids who don’t want blue collar work leave to the bigger cities. Since we are overrun with liberals, most of the population who can have kids doesn’t, or deliberately chooses small families.

    Facts, as John Adams famously said, are stubborn things.

    Problem is our city fathers don’t deal in facts and the liberal population of Juneau lives in a fantasy unconnected to reality.

  2. Throwing more money at public education has so far failed to improve academic results of Juneau schools, at least for the last 45 years of them. In the old days, an employer could expect a graduate of JDHS to understand basic math, write (not print) their name, understand and manage a checkbook, read a book or newspaper and show up on time for a job. In the “old” days, many graduates of JDHS attended community college, where they learned and cultivated skills, marketable skills, for which they did not incur massive indebtedness. (Those are the ones today the government wants to pay the bill for student loans they did not incur, for titles no one other than the State of Alaska, values.) When have you ever heard of a University of Alaska Chancellor with a degree from the University of Alaska? Even UA hires from the outside!

  3. Yep, you are quite correct Win. Remember when you supported a new high school for Juneau? Those ‘changing demographics were a fact then as well….

  4. The cause of reduced student numbers is the wretched public schools!!! They started pushing evolution as proven science when we were little. Many parents pulled their kids then, and it was the start of the homeschool movement across the country. Now they’re pushing CRT and gender lies…again as science…and wonder why they are losing students! Alaska has excellent homeschool options and a very conservative independent populous. Btw, the constant changing of curriculum and methods retards learning.

    • You were “little” when Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace published their theories on evolution? Heheh!
      Of course evolution has been around ever since life began on Earth (several billion years ago) but this is before folks started homeschool.

  5. Juneau has an older than dirt population. Retired state and city employees who sit on the best land and finest homes in Juneau, land given to them from their mom and daddy … now they have retired and are sucking down pensions they agreed to pay themselves long ago. All the while bitching about the youth and calling them “lazy” because said youth can’t afford a home like their parents gave to them. They spend the maximum amount of time down south in the winter months only coming home in time to not lose their benefits they worked so hard in their careers in the federal building to achieve. Now that the money is gone, schools are going broke, fish are gone, benefits are cleaned up and homes are 700 thousand dollars, they sit in Juneau and complain that the ferry service won’t bring them to their family cabin in Tenakee for their 4-day weekend. Monday morning is a traffic jam, the over 60 crowd heading to Bartlett to get check ups and treatments. Juneau is doomed… move the capital, Alaska. If you leave it in Juneau one day the cruise lines will be hosting Legislatures on board the Westerdam.

    • Pretty comical treatise on how retired state and city employees “worked so hard in their careers in the federal building.” Your screed is nothing but bullchit, perhaps to fuel another capital move.
      Maybe you can salvage something here by giving us a rundown on your depression meds that are clouding your logic Loren?

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