SKIER'S HOBBIT HOLE

Two skiers are famed by the view from a “Hobbit Hole” window at an aid station, themed after the “Lord of the Rings”, during the Buckwheat Ski Classic on March 27 on the Log Cabin trails. See story, results and more photos below. Andrew Cremata

School passes on budget to City

Balances without separate $106,818 for activities

By JEFF BRADY
The Skagway School Board presented a proposed $1,564,750 budget for the FY 2005 school year to the City Council last week, with a separate request for city funding of a $106,818 student activities budget.
Also, the school district is asking the city to continue funding the food service program ($67,000), technology upgrades ($30,000), and the fish hatchery ($12,000), and submitted a capital improvement request for a new water heater ($26,000).
The proposed school operating budget is about $131,000 lower than what the district anticipates spending this school year, but it does not include a music education program and funds for student activities that were built into previous budgets.
Depending on whether an elementary teacher retires, or whether the Alaska Legislature increases the state foundation formula, the district may be forced to amend the budget to have one less elementary teacher.
The district budget anticipates an enrollment drop from 106 to 102 students, but there is a real fear it could drop below 100 during next October’s counting period. When it started the budget process, the district was looking at a possible deficit of $271,830. Faced with this prospect, the board eliminated the music program with a Reduction in Force vote at a special meeting on March 9, saving the district about $96,000. But that still left a sizable deficit, and board members met with council members March 19 to explain their predicament and look at possible scenarios.
These included having one less elementary teacher, a reduced maintenance staff, and pulling out the activities budget as a separate funding request – something other districts around the state do, said Superintendent Michael Dickens. Some districts receive that money from cities, while others require activity fees and fund-raising as well.
Parents at meetings over the past month have urged the board to cut the activities budget proportionally to the music program. At a work session prior to the March 30 board meeting, Dickens explained that business manager Kathy Pierce and he had cut the activities budget from the $172,081, as originally submitted, to $106,818. The higher figure would have included several trips for each activity, including sports, music and student government events, and the addition of a debate team. Dickens said one trip from each activity was cut, and the debate team was scratched for next year.
This year, the district will spend $116,042 on student activities, so the actual request to the city is $9,224 lower than this year’s activities budget.
Dickens told members of the Skagway School Employees Association that Pierce and he had made other little cuts throughout the budget “to keep the best services for staff and students, and to save money.”
At last week’s meeting there was still support for keeping music in the school, even at the expense of other programs.
Parent John Harris said that while he supports the lunch program, the district should look at reducing costs in that area as well. “I’d rather pack my kids a lunch and keep the music program,” he said.
Dickens said good lunch programs have been proven to be vital to learning, and also generate $30,000 in e-rate discounts for online services next year, but parent Colette Hisman responded, “The way I do my math, I don’t spend $110,000 (total cost of meals program) to save $30,000.”
The superintendent said young kids would be taught music by the elementary staff, and others suggested having an after-school music club for high school students.
Other options for cuts focused on the school maintenance staff. After being told that city and school staffs could not be combined, the district is looking at offering early retirement to longtime custodian Ron Ackerman.
The offer would include a buy-out payment, but there would be a cost savings over time.
If enrollment drops below 101, things could get worse. Without a boost in the state foundation formula, the district could lose another $111,000.
Considering these unknowns, Dickens said he has a plan if there is one less elementary teacher: the kindergarten teacher would work with preschoolers half a day, and only with four-year-olds. Three-year-olds would be dropped from the program. Currently, the preschool teacher spends two mornings a week with three-year-olds and three mornings a week with four-year-olds. Her afternoons are spent teaching study skills to kids in grades four and higher.
Before passing the budget, board members said they wish they had more concrete information and time. They would like to see the city change its deadline for having the school budget submitted from April 1 to May 1 or later, after the Legislature adjourns.
For now, the budget is before the City Council with a lot of unknowns regarding next year.
“We’ll just have to see and deal with whatever they say,” Dickens said.
At its April 1 meeting, the Council passed first reading of an ordinance to move the school budget due date to April 15, the same required of the clinic. Although City Manager Bob Ward and Council members Mike Catsi and Mike Korsmo had no problem with moving the date to May 1, members Dave Hunz and Jay Frey said the school budget affects how the city treats other departments in budget deliberations. Ward acknowledged that if a budget came in on May 1 and had to be sent back, “we’d be pushing ourselves.”

Complaint filed over Music RIF

This week the News learned that a complaint against the school district regarding the RIF of the music program had been filed by the National Education Association on behalf of music instructor Barry Beckett.
Beckett confirmed Wednesday that the NEA is representing him in an action, but had no further comment and referred questions to his representative in Anchorage, who was unavailable prior to deadline for this issue.

Ice house demolition upheld by Council
Unless someone comes forward in the next 30 days to move the historic ice house on Fifth Ave., the building will be allowed to be demolished by its owner.
The demolition, initially approved by the Historic District Commission last November, has been on a six month clock ever since, and has survived appeals by the National Park Service before the Planning and Zoning Commission, and, most recently on April 1, the Skagway City Council.
Acting as the Board of Adjustment, the Council first heard from Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park Superintendent Bruce Noble. He asked for a delay in the effective date for demolition from May 11, 2004 to Jan. 31, 2005.
The Park Service is interested in the building, believed to be the last ice house standing in Skagway, but currently has no place to put it and no funds to move it, he said. Extending the period would give the agency time to put in a request for funds in its FY05 budget, which would be received in October.
“A delay provides every opportunity to preserve this historic building,” Noble said.
He said a delay would not affect the footprint of the new building being planned on the adjacent property at Fifth and Broadway by owner Andrew Knorr, and would prevent its demolition on a heavy cruise ship day before thousands of tourists.
But in his rebuttal, Knorr said he would not demolish it on a busy ship day, and would prefer to knock it down before tourist season, if allowed. As in past hearings, Knorr questioned the timing of the initial appeal by NPS, which came 15 days after the Nov. 9 HDC decision. But City Clerk Marj Harris said the “date of decision” in all such cases has been the date she sent notices out after reviewing minutes from meetings where decisions are made.
Knorr countered that her interpretation is not what is written in city code. “Basically, if the city can not follow its own municipal code, how can it expect citizens to,” he said.
Delaying the demolition would delay plans to develop his property, he added.
In his written response to the appeal , Knorr said he had worked for a compromise and offered the building free of charge to anyone interested in it.
“Unfortunately I cannot afford to wait until January, 2005 for the Park Service to make a decision or to wait indefinitely for someone to find funds to restore the building,” Knorr wrote. “Unlike the Park Service my budget is not government funded and I need to move forward.”
Knorr also asked the Council to change the requirements for documenting the building before demolition. The P&Z Commission had set it at the Historic American Building Survey Level 1, the highest of four levels. Knorr said city code did not specify which level, and requested the Council set it at Level 2 or 3. Those lower levels would significantly lower his cost and still provide photographic records and measurements of the building without a detailed survey.
He added that a Level 1 survey would involve Park Service approval, constituting a conflict of interest. And he also noted that by leasing buildings in the Historic District, the NPS was in competition with private developers, and accused the agency of “delaying to impede progress.” To this, Noble shook his head.
During public testimony, HDC members Casey McBride and Virginia Long said the commission was split and never had the votes to prevent demolition.
“Just because we approved if, doesn’t mean we’d like to see it demolished,” McBride said, adding that the delay was a good idea and would just affect Knorr’s parking plans for a year. “If it can be saved, we’d all be better off.”
Long said the ice house dilemma produced a number of gray areas for the commission and came down to personal interpretation. When the code states “demolition shall be discouraged,” does that mean it shall be approved as a last resort or left up to the discretion of the property owner, she asked.
She said her initial assessment of the Portland House was just as bad as the ice house a couple years ago before she started its restoration. “Now it is something you can be proud of.”
Long concluded by asking the city to develop a criteria for saving buildings that could be threatened in the future. Business owner Dennis Corrington even suggested that the city buy those eight buildings, restore them, and lease them like the Park Service. But Mayor Tim Bourcy said many city sales tax funds are already dedicated to other projects and buying up property would not be a wise use.
Others in the audience said the Park Service should not be involved in any decisions on private property.
“The National Park Service and its employees don’t have the right to influence what happens on private property,” said Ed Fairbanks.
Julie Moe said the Council should also consider the public’s safety.
“The building is falling apart and a wreck,” she said, adding that she would hate to see it fall down on kids or tourists and hurt somebody.
Bourcy said he respected the Park Service’s approach to the issue, since its mission is “to preserve and protect,” but also agreed with Knorr and Fairbanks that the economics in Skagway for private development are difficult.
The mayor added that part of Skagway’s history is the moving of buildings.
“If we want to keep the building, let’s figure out a way to keep the building without holding Mr. Knorr hostage,” Bourcy said, adding it could be moved to the city staging area if the Park Service has no place to put it yet.
Hunz said the dispute over the date of filing the appeal is a problem, as well as “trying to save the building at the expense of the property owner.” He said it cost $30,000 to move the McDermott cabin, a building half the ice house’s size.
Not too many in the private sector can afford to restore historic buildings, he added. Jay Frey agreed and made a motion to uphold the P&Z decision. Hunz then offered an amendment to reduce the survey to HABS Level 3. This would require a sketched plan, accurate measurements, large format photos of the interior and exterior, and a summary of one or two pages.
Both the amendment and motion to uphold the P&Z decision passed 5-0. – JB

PHOTO OF THE WEEK

Tom and Michelle Cornwell from Washington relax at the Buckwheat Ski Classic aid station. See their story in Andrew Cremata's race feature. AC

OTHER STORIES

• THE BUCKWHEAT: After 18 years, ski race still a Classic

Official 2004 Buckwheat Ski Classic Results - PDF

• SPORTS & REC.: Lady Panthers take fifth at State Tourney

• FEATURE: "Flying boat" to debut in fall, looking for dock

To read all the stories in the News, including city and school digests, letters and commentary, police and court reports, and view our many advertisers for Skagway products and services, you must subscribe to the real thing. Out of town subscriptions cost $35 per year for second class mail, $45 for first class mail. Send a check to Skagway News, Box 498, Skagway, AK 99840 or call us at 907-983-2354 with a credit card number.