January 18, 2012 • Vol. XXXV, No. 1
Eyes on the Prize
Isla Sims eyes a yummy ice cream sandwich during the Don Hather Tournament. There were some sweet shots and victories too. See basketball story and more photos in Sports & Rec and on the SHS Basketball Page.
Photo by Cody Jennings
School operating budget needs to make up about 60K
Board weighs cutting h.s. teacher versus tapping fund balance, other options
By JEFF BRADY
Skagway School Superintendent Jeff Thielbar presented a draft operating budget to the public last week which, even with significant cuts, showed a $59,016 shortfall.
“I’m to the point where I need some help,” he told a gathering of about 20 that included school board and assembly members, district staff, and a few students and citizens.
With just a slight projected increase to 63 students in the school next year – from this year’s decades-low 58 students – there would be more state foundation money but less borough money under the so-called municipal cap. The district is expected to take in $1.973 million in revenue, but operating expenses would be $2.032 million.
Dr. Thielbar said he had broken from a previous philosophy to add a percentage to school maintenance and operation costs, and instead based those budget items on actual expenditures from the previous year. This saved more than $39,000, and he made other cuts where he could. The one exception is salary and benefits, which will go up 2 percent next year based on negotiated agreements with staff, he said.
Thielbar then explained how the enrollment in the high school was dropping and would be down to just 13 kids in three years, with no more than 16 in the next five years. There is a wave of new students expected in the elementary over the next few years that will lift total enrollment, but not that much.
Looking at the enrollment in the high school, he suggested, reluctantly, that it may be time to cut a teacher to make up the $60,000. He suggested combining the math/science positions.
“There’s a lot of opinion on that and I hate (cutting a teacher),” he said, but it would be a way to address the shortfall.
The district could do this without declaring a Reduction In Force because it currently has the science teacher under a one-year interim contract, he added later.
One board member, Cara Cosgrove, opposed any cuts in staff. The high school already has combined English-social studies positions, and that move and the loss of a full-time music teacher in recent years led to some parents pulling their kids from the high school.
“I view (cutting a teacher) as crippling the high school,” Cosgrove said.
But resident Mavis Irene Henricksen said she had combined math-science teachers when she was in high school in the 1950s, and those students went on to do well in college. Still, she said she believed the state required at least 3.5 staff members in the high school.
TAKING QUESTIONS – School Superintendent Dr. Jeff Theilbar takes questions from the public during presentation of a preliminary school operating budget. Jeff Brady
Thielbar, who was a science teacher 10 years ago before he went into administration, was asked if he could teach science for a year. But he said he would rather not as he was mostly a life sciences teacher with some chemistry experience and had never taught physics.
“There’s a reason I became an administrator,” he said.
Other ideas were floated and written on a white board.
The district has had budget carry-overs the past two years, enabling them to hold on to 10 percent by state law. That carry-over has gone into a fund balance that is now up to about $250,000, Thielbar said. Of that, he said $42,000 was being returned to the municipality based on actual budget figures from the current year.
Assemblyman Tim Cochran proposed that the district tap that fund next year, citing the municipality as an example when it pulls money from sales tax reserves to cover its operating budget.
But Thielbar cautioned against that strategy, saying the fund balance helps the district meet payroll at the start of the year before state and municipal money comes into the school.
“Any of the stop-gap measures must be sustainable,” he said.
Other ideas included asking the teachers to waive their raise for the coming year, but Thielbar said that would not get close to making up the projected shortfall. Recruiting foreign exchange students also would not help with budgeting. They could try to get parents who have left the district to come back, but Thielbar said 10 more students would be needed.
Board member Stuart Brown said he also would like to avoid doing something drastic, since he believes enrollment will come back.
One suggestion, which will have to be run by the state, would be to have the school rent the building from the municipality, and let the borough take on the operating costs.
The board met in a work session Jan. 17 after this issue went to press to discuss the options. It also will begin work on items outside the operating budget such as technology, activities, music, and food service that have been funded “outside the cap” by the municipality in recent years.
Rep. Thomas pre-files three of 33 House bills for legislative session
By KATIE EMMETS
Going into the Alaska State Legislature’s regular session, Representative Bill Thomas (R-Haines) said he hopes fellow lawmakers have their ducks in a row because they have a short amount of time to accomplish a lot of things.
As of last weekend, there were 33 pre-filed Alaska House of Representative bills and 21 pre-filed Senate bills, but Thomas said he expects that number to rise during the second half of the 90-day session, which started Tuesday, Jan. 17.
Of the 33 pre-filed House Bills, Thomas is sponsoring only three.
“I don’t attach my name to just anything,” he said. “It should be rare and fine like a nice wine.”
Thomas said he is particularly passionate about two of his sponsored bills.
A bill that attempted to outlaw texting while driving was passed last year and signed into law, but Thomas said the state was unclear on specific details of the bill.
Thomas is attempting to pass a more understandable version this year with HB 255, which is co-sponsored by fellow Rep. Les Gara (D-Anchorage).
The new language reads: “Prohibiting the driver of a motor vehicle from reading or typing a text message or other nonvoice message or communication on a cellular telephone, computer or personal data assistant while driving a motor vehicle.”
The stricter language is meant to help prevent deaths.
“I sit and try to watch the news every day, and I have seen so many people killed while driving because of texting on their phones,” Thomas said. “We’ve lost several people this year in Alaska.”
Though he is aware that other states have enacted this law, Thomas said he not supporting this bill to follow their lead, rather to protect Alaskan residents.
“We don’t have enough people as it is,” he said. “We don’t want to go around killing them.”
Thomas said he is always tempted to answer texts or e-mail when he hears the notifications on his iPhone while he is driving, but he knows it’s unsafe.
The second bill Thomas is sponsoring, HB 246, “naming certain bridges,” will allow Alaskan towns to name their bridges after fallen war heroes.
On a recent trip to Cordova, Thomas found the city has 18 bridges with no names.
Cordova has the most military fatalities, Thomas said, with four residents killed in the Vietnam War — the highest per capita in Alaska.
Thomas said Cordova memorializes its fallen military several times a year, a few of which he has been in town for.
“Naming the bridges after them is a good tribute,” he said. “One the town would like very much.”
Because the state owns the bridges, there is a long process a town must undergo in order to name a bridge. If HB 246 is passed, Thomas hopes the process would be sped up.
Thomas is also encouraging other Alaska towns, such as Skagway, to consider naming their bridges after residents who have died while serving in the United States military.
Another item on the legislature agenda the Upper Lynn Canal has been concerned with is the approval of funding toward small boat harbor improvements.
But Skagway can rest easy.
Thomas said with Governor Sean Parnell’s budget appropriation and the co-chairs of finance sponsoring the bill (himself and Senator Bert Stedman), it will be passed.
“Someone will pay if this doesn’t go through,” Thomas said with a laugh.
Though the matching grant program for Alaska’s harbors has been under-funded the last few years, Thomas said he is happy that the full $23 million has been put into the program for 2012.
Along with Skagway receiving $5 million for the Skagway Small Boat Harbor improvement if the bill is passed, Haines will receive $4.5 million to use toward improvements for its harbor as well.
The Alaska State Legislature began Tuesday and will be in its regular session till April 15.
Alaska residents who are interested in watching its progress can do so by going to http://gavelalaska.org/ where some of the sessions and committee meetings will be streaming live online.
The News website will alert readers to items of special interest to Skagway residents during the session.
Alaska Sea Party nearing petition count for ballot initiative to restore Costal Management
Skagway submits 150 signatures
The Alaska Sea Party has been urging Alaska residents to sign petitions in order to get the Costal Management Program running again.
Last year, all funding was cut from the program, leaving it extinct, and as of July 1, Alaska was the only maritime state without a costal management program, despite its 34,000-mile shoreline.
“We’ve been planning for months for this day, and now that we have the booklets, we’re ready to make history and get back Alaskans’ voice in managing our coastlines,” Juneau Mayor and Chairman of the Sea Party Bruce Botelho said in an Alaska Sea Party release last month.
The Alaska Sea Party is the group that is supporting the restoration of the program, and its original goal was to gather 26,000 signatures by Jan. 17, the start of the Alaska Legislative Session, but Botelho said they are going to need more.
“We have surpassed the critical 26,000-signature threshold, but we need to redouble our efforts in these last days to reach our real goal: 35,000 signatures,” read the Alaska Sea Party website on Jan 16. “This number is our target because we're told that we should expect the official verification process to invalidate a significant number of the signatures we've collected.”
If the Sea Party successfully met its deadline, the Legislature could either create its own program or Alaskans will be able to vote on restoring the program in the next regularly scheduled election.
If the group does not meet its goal, it will have to wait until 2014 for another chance to gain signatures for the petition.
Skagway Assemblyman Mike Korsmo has been actively involved in trying to encourage the state to resume funding for the Costal Management Program.
The program gave all Alaskan costal districts input into any projects that are constructed in their areas.
“Whether it’s a state or federal project, the program gives us some strength into that project,” Korsmo said. “It’s very important to this community to have some kind of local control.”
Korsmo, Jan Wrentmore and the Taiya Inlet Watershed Council have been asking all Skagway residents to join other Alaskans and sign the citizens' ballot initiative to restore the Alaska Coastal Management Program.
Wrentmore said 150 Skagway residents signed the petition, and to her knowledge, only two who were asked declined to participate. – KE
Recent deaths of Common Murre sea birds perplexing; cause must wait for lab results
By JEFF BRADY
As of Jan. 14, there had been more than 40 confirmed deaths of Common Murre sea birds in the area, as reported by members of the Skagway Bird Club.
The Common Murre has been showing up in this area the past couple of years. It can be mistaken for a type of duck, but its black and white markings and thin bill make it look more like a penguin. During the most recent Christmas Bird Count, 130 of them were counted.
The deaths started occurring on Jan. 8-9, when 11 were found dead on the shore, and one in town. Three more were found upland in town alive and were handled by the bird club’s rescue group. After being held for a while and observed, the live murres were taken to the small boat harbor and released.
Some of the dead birds and a fecal sample from one of the live birds were flown to Juneau for investigation by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. They were sent on to the National Wildlife Health Lab in Wisconsin to determine cause of death.
Over the course of last week, more dead murres were found in the area. Some carcasses were seen on shorelines being picked on by eagles or gulls. Six more live birds were spotted.
Elaine Furbish of the bird club said anyone who finds a sick or injured bird should call the police dispatcher, who will then get the bird rescue group to take care of it. She said they appreciate the help Wings of Alaska has given them transporting birds to Juneau.
A dead Common Murre is photographed on the beach, and a live bird is released from a carrier at the Small Boat Harbor. Courtesy Skagway Bird Club
The cause of the bird deaths remains a mystery.
It could have been related to weather, since a strong southerly winter storm hit Skagway from the evening of Jan. 7 to midday on Jan. 9. Winds were gusting up to 53 m.p.h. during the fifth such storm of the month, but there were 13 similar storms in December. Furbish suggested the most recent storm may have just contributed to deaths of already sick birds, but was probably not the primary cause.
She stressed in an e-mail on Jan. 14 that they need to wait on analysis from the national lab.
“It's hard to say at this point what has been making the murres die,” she wrote. “It could be as simple as they have not been able to find enough food and they have been starving. It could be that something else has affected them - a sickness, a parasite, a toxin, or some other stressor in their environment - which could kill them directly or could make them too weak to feed.”
Furbish said it seems unlikely that the cause is radiation from the Fukushima earthquake in Japan last year, which some club members were curious about.
“As far as I know, the possible radiation exposure over here would not be at a level that would kill organisms outright,” she continued. “But low-level exposure could contribute to weakening immune systems that might make creatures more susceptible to other stresses. Most of the information I've read about it seems to indicate that effects from radiation would more likely be seen as genetic defects in offspring, and would have a more broad impact across species. If they have been exposed to some radiation from Fukushima, it's probably a subtle effect and/or a contributing factor - rather than the only cause.”
Until the lab results return from Wisconsin, they can only speculate, she concluded.
Selmer signs letter in support of port lecture investigation
Skagway Mayor Stan Selmer, along with two other Southeast Alaska port city mayors, recently signed a letter asking the Alaska attorney general to investigate the advertisement practices on board cruise ships in Southeast Alaska.
In the port lecture system, stores in Southeastern ports pay independent media companies to advertise their businesses, and the media companies pay the cruise lines for the exclusive right to advertise on their ships. The companies produce shopping maps and contract port lecturers to verbally promote shopping at the stores that pay to be included in this program.
“Through this information, it appears as if passengers are led to believe that these are the only stores that will give you a fair deal,” Selmer said, adding that Southeast ports are doing what they can to ensure this isn’t the case.
Upon the recommendation from Skagway Convention and Visitors Bureau, Selmer took Juneau and Ketchikan’s lead and signed a letter last month explaining concerns of the system to then- Attorney General John Burns. Before signing the letter, Selmer polled members of the community and he said their opinions were split on whether or not he should sign the letter in support of the investigation.
Juneau City and Borough Mayor Bruce Botelho and City of Ketchikan Mayor Lew Williams III also signed the letter, and Botelho delivered it to Burns on Dec. 15.
“We have noted that the port lecture companies have resorted to increasingly more aggressive and deceptive promotions on board ships and on shore,” the letter states. “We have received reports of instances in which port lecturers assure passengers that the cruise lines have selected stores on the promotion and guarantee purchases made at those stores-representations which are not true.”
Through shopping maps and other forms of visual media, passengers are urged to shop only in stores that are promoted onboard the cruise ships, stated the letter, and port lecturers are known to disembark to steer passengers toward participating shops such as jewelry stores.
“The port lecture companies receive much of their financial support from big, outside jewelry conglomerates that pay for a significant amount of their advertising,” the letter states.
“We are concerned that the Port Lecture system is changing the character of the downtown areas of Ketchikan, Skagway and Juneau,” the letter stated. “The local stores in these communities are being replaced by international jewelry conglomerates.”
The mayors of the Southeast Alaskan ports are worried that this will continue to increase rental costs and property taxes making it even harder for local owners to compete.
Selmer said owners of Skagway’s locally owned stores told him they do not like this service but are scared not to participate.
“They feel disenfranchised because they don’t want to pay to advertise on the cruise ships, but they don’t want to lose out on business,” he said.
The letter also states that the locally owned shops that are participating in this program have little say about how their businesses are promoted.
After asking Burns to review the current port lecture system, Selmer, Botelho and Williams said they were prepared to meet with him (or his successor) to discuss this matter further.
Burns resigned late in the year for personal reasons. Gov. Sean Parnell appointed Michael Geraghty to be the new attorney general on Jan. 13.– KE
Buckwheat Ski Classic Feature: BSC reorganizes under LCSS
BEACH NEW YEAR – You didn’t have to go to a tropical island to ring in the new year with fishes. Skagway residents in beach attire kiss and toast among dropped balloons and beach decorations as the clock strikes midnight at the annual New Year’s Eve bash at the Elks. Katie Emmets
BOROUGH DIGEST (complete digest in print edition)
Ordinance to allow teleconferencing to establish quorum tabled indefinitely
An ordinance that would have made it possible to establish a quorum through teleconferencing was tabled indefinitely after five Skagway Borough Assembly members strongly opposed it.
Ordinance No. 11-30 would have allowed assembly members to contribute electronically via teleconferencing to establish a quorum and therefore avoid any more borough assembly meeting cancellations.
At the Jan. 5 Skagway Borough Assembly meeting former mayor Tom Cochran addressed the assembly during the public hearing of Ordinance No. 11-30 with mixed feelings.
“It’s kind of a rock and a hard place to a degree,” Cochran said.
By passing this ordinance, Cochran said the assembly has the potential to have only two members sitting at the table month after month in the winter, but he also realizes there is business that needs to be dealt with and meetings can’t be cancelled.
Cochran said he understands the issue at hand because in his first year and a half as Skagway’s mayor it was difficult for the assembly to achieve quorum.
“You can’t keep putting assembly meetings off because it’s not fair to the public,” he said. “Especially people that have agenda items that need to be addressed. So, you know, you gotta do what you gotta do. I think it’s worth a shot.”
Mavis Irene Henricksen said she thinks the amendments to the ordinance will allow assembly members to take advantage of not going to the meetings. Three Skagway residents agreed with her.
Mayor Stan Selmer, who introduced the ordinance, said he doesn’t understand why assembly members can phone in to meetings, get paid for phoning in, and can vote on every item on the agenda, but then can’t be included as part of the quorum.
Assemblyman Mike Korsmo said he understands that it has been difficult to establish a quorum this winter, and though he can’t be there all the time because his job requires travel, he believes in having a physical presence at the table and said he would vote against the ordinance.
Assemblyman Paul Reichert said he hasn’t noticed a big issue with a lack of quorum in the two years he has been on the assembly.
“I wasn’t a big fan of teleconferencing when it came to the table,” he said. “But I voted for it, and I think it has worked out pretty well with this body so far.”
But Reichert said his concern in passing the ordinance is that it would be abused.
“I’m afraid of opening up a can of worms leading to only two people sitting up here,” he said. “There would be a big void. That’s not how I think of this body working.”
Reichert said he does not want to see the assembly pass this ordinance, adding that he would vote against it.
Assemblyman Mark Schaefer said he is happy with the way things are now, but thinks if they get into quorum trouble again, they could always revisit the issue.
Assemblyman Dave Hunz said the ordinance could eventually work better with video conferencing or other social media, but he said he thinks teleconferencing technology isn’t up to par. Hunz added that it’s difficult to hear those who are on the phone.
“It could be supportable as technology improves,” he said.
Assemblyman Tim Cochran mirrored Hunz’s sentiment and said he doesn’t like the fact that those who are teleconferencing cannot see the audience or speak to anyone face-to-face.
Dan Henry was the only assembly member to indicate he could support the ordinance. Speaking via teleconference, he said there are parameters in place to limit abuse, and that teleconferencing is allowed for everything except establishing a quorum.
But faced with a certain defeat of the ordinance on second reading, the mayor tried a different tact.
“I’m certainly not going to sit here and try to convince five assembly members to change their minds, however I would ask that we have a motion to table this,” Selmer said, adding that tabling the ordinance will allow for it to come back if there is a need for it.
He got the motion, and the assembly voted to table Ordinance No. 11-30 with a vote of 5-1, with Reichert voting no. – KE