Moraine on the Move

A new canyon was created when a 700-foot-high section of the moraine above West Creek Glacier collapsed and sent debris over the toe of the glacier (right) causing a surge in water down the West Creek Valley and into Dyea. See Special Report on Dyea Flood. Photo by Stan Kartis, Temsco Helicopters

Board likes Michael Dickens for interim superintendent

Since unexpectedly losing its superintendent two weeks ago, the Skagway City School Board has been in high gear trying to find an interim superintendent/principal to get the school year started.
On Monday, after interviewing two candidates, board members were solidly behind one man, Michael Dickens, but after preliminary contract negotiations, he asked to have until Friday to confer with his family before making a decision.
Getting to this point wasn’t easy and took four meetings. The board had to accept James Telles’ sudden resignation (see related story, p. 9), then query the Association of Alaska School Boards about candidates who might be out there, and make a decision about posting the interim position.
Board President Chris Ellis said the district had no choice to go the interim route because a full superintendent search takes a couple months. She said AASB had three possible names. Two of those declined the invitation to apply, leaving Dickens, most recently an elementary principal in Ketchikan. But another man, Patrick Doyle, a Seattle school consultant with Alaska superintendent experience, called the district and asked to be considered.
In the meantime, the board had asked community members to step forward to help with the interview process. A few who responded to a solicitation for being on an interview panel showed up at a July 16 work session hoping to be appointed, but board members said it was never clear that a panel was what they wanted. Instead, to the dismay of some in the crowd, the board decided to conduct the interviews, but they took lots of public input over the next two hours in the formulating of questions for the candidates.
They pored over and edited sample AASB questions, and also added questions from audience members, who were mostly concerned with how the candidates related with kids and managed people.
The board also decided, after looking at both candidates’ resumes, that only Dickens would come to Skagway for an in-person interview. Doyle’s would be done the same day by phone.
After Doyle’s interview at noon on Monday, teachers in the audience said he was “definitely a superintendent,” instead of more like a principal.
Dickens, who flew in later in the day, made it clear in his interview that he can be both. And unlike Doyle, who was interested in the Skagway job as a one-year stop, Dickens said he was looking for something long-term. “If I like a place, I tend to stay there,” he said.
Dickens said he looked for a second career after he decided to get out of banking, and took up his wife’s, who is also a school adminstrator, currently on leave from an Alaska district. Both have doctorates in education. Mr. Dickens has 12 years in Alaska as a teacher at Brevig Mission, then teacher and principal at Unalakleet, then principal at Ketchikan’s historic White Rock School. He said he left that job after one year to search for a position where he gets to make more decisions on children’s needs.

Michael Dickens answers questions from members of the Skagway City School Board during Monday night’s interview. JB

Throughout his interview, Dickens stressed the importance of communication with everyone involved with the school: kids, staff, custodians, board, parents and community. He likes to put out weekly newsletters. By addressing issues early, you get people involved, he said.
Dickens had these positions on some issues raised by the board and those who helped put together the questions:
• Curriculum - He has extensive experience in developing and evaluating curriculum with teachers, and making adjustments. “I’m a big believer in going into classrooms, not to spy, but to see what exciting things kids are able to do,” he said.
• Budget - With a finance degree Dickens said he has something most educators don’t have. If forced to make cuts, he said you have to involve people in the decision and “decide what meets the needs of most kids.”
• Relationship with staff - Dickens considers himself a teacher. As a superintendent/principal he should be there to “make teaching easier... these are college-educated people: work with them, have them take ownership of changes, for the benefit of students.”
• Motivating students - Dickens said he is a big beliver in high expectations and said it is important “to let them know that you really appreciate them.” Part of making learning viable is keeping school a positive place. Sports and events are good for pulling along difficult students.
Dickens said getting kids to enjoy being in school and getting teachers to work together has been his biggest accomplishment, while working long hours and having no social life is probably his biggest problem.
“But with the superintendent/principal, maybe that’s what you want, and teach auto mechanics and build a house... you had a good deal before,” he said, drawing laughter from the audience.
When asked if he had any first-year goals, Dickens said “It’s dangerous and not a good idea ... to go into a place and think you are Mr. Answerman.” His goals would be based on board and teachers’ goals.
After about a half hour executive session, the board emerged with a motion from Tom Cochran to enter into negotiations with Michael Dickens. The vote was unanimous.
Cochran said it was not an ideal situation for the board to be in, having lost its superintendent midway through the summer. “We’re all doing the best we can, and we had two good candidates,” he said.
Dawn Kilburn said, “I like the fact that Mike seemed to be more kid oriented, that’s a good plus.”
Ellis said the two men had different personailites, and “with the direction this district should go,

UPDATE: Dickens did accept the position and started work in Skagway the week of Aug. 5.

James Telles resigns to help family in Southwest
James Telles’ decision to resign his school superintendent position early this month was not expected, even by himself. But he knew the possibility existed when he had to make a rushed trip to help with a family matter at the end of June, missing the board meeting where his new contract awaited.
Reached by phone while he was packing up on July 12, Telles said that he was called to go down early to Texas, where his wife Jenny has been caring for her elderly parents for the past year. Telles said he had hoped, during his summer break, to talk her into coming back up here for the coming school year. Instead, it was evident that she needed his help.
“It wasn’t that easy, believe me,” Telles said of the decision to call board president Chris Ellis and tell her he needed to resign.
“It certainly wasn’t because I was unhappy here,” he continued. “The relationship with the board and most of the teachers was healthy.”
Telles had been in the district four years, hired as a shop teacher four years ago to revitalize the school’s vocational education program. He also taught art classes and had administrative experience.
Telles moved into the superintendent position after a contentious 2000-2001 school year in which the district saw: a) former superintendent Richard Lee get a renewed contract despite overwhelming public support against him; b) the three board members who supported Lee were recalled; c) the new board work out a deal with Lee to write grants for a year while it made Telles an interim superindentent to run the school.
Telles was later hired to the position full-time and also continued to teach his auto class, which was his fun time with kids away from the office.
“The auto program has been going like crazy,” he said. “Leaving that part is really hard to swallow and I hope it doesn’t get dropped.”
(The district is already advertising for a part-time voc. ed. instructor).
Telles said there is still a lot of work to do at Skagway School to improve academic quality, but he felt the district had made progress in his nearly two years as superintendent.
The school will be offering Advance Placement English courses this fall, he said, and hopefully AP math and science next year. He also helped bring in the popular lunch program, the 21st Century Community Schools grant, and helped the board with the realignment of its policy manual
“It’s a good school and the kids are great for the most part, few discipline problems,” he said. “I felt the academic program could be a lot stronger, and we were getting there.”
Telles held out the option of coming back to Skagway and the district some day.
“It’s sad on both sides, I think,” he said. “The board was happy with what I was doing, but there are family matters I have to take care of.” – JB

Preliminary Boundary Commission report goes against borough

ANCHORAGE – For years the City of Skagway has tried to protect its interests. After decades of boom and bust cycles from the rise and fall of the Klondike Gold Rush, to the bustling war years, to the height of White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad’s freight hauling days, Skagway’s sense of security now rests on the tourism industry.
Still, a perceived threat to Skagway’s autonomy has lingered.
In a defensive move in January 2001, the City of Skagway filed a borough petition with the Department of Community and Economic Development to incorporate into a first-class borough. That would mean dissolving the City of Skagway, but all that would really change is the name, say city and state officials – the borough would provide the same services the city has for years.
Forty-three citizens out of a population of 862 (2000 U.S. Census figure) sent post cards supporting the petition, there were no negative comments, the correct number of registered voters signed the petition, and so the Local Boundary Commission accepted it. The LBC, under the DC&ED, is an independent body of five appointed members, one from each of the four judicial districts and one at-large who serves as chair. Recently there were
two vacancies on the board. Gov. Tony Knowles made the appointments this week but the names were not available at press time.
Contrary to testimony provided by residents of Skagway at the Legislative session this spring, “I do realize Skagway does contribute to local services already,” said Dan Bockhorst, local government specialist for the commission, in his Anchorage office last week. “There is nothing to be gained by forming a Skagway borough. The city does everything that a borough does.”
Nor will it protect Skagway from annexation into another borough, said Bockhorst, because there is still the legislative review process involving a petition to the LBC which does not require a local vote.
However, consolidation or merger of the city with another borough or municipality remains the perceived threat.
Such a move was anticipated when Skagway lobbyists and Mayor Tim Bourcy went to Juneau and successfully added language to House Bill 296 to give residents a vote on whether to be merged or consolidated. But Knowles vetoed it July 8, commenting: “This legislation creates a potential for the ‘tail to wag the dog’ in any future merger or consolidation election, thus giving more power to the minority over the majority,” he said. “It has the high
potential of rendering consolidations and mergers of municipalities more difficult, if not impossible, under the local option method. This would be contrary to the Alaska Constitution.”
In November 2001, the Haines Borough Assembly signed a resolution supporting the borough petition after several Haines city council members asked for a study on annexing Skagway.
“There have been three opportunities for the Local Boundary Commission to consider Skagway in the Haines borough,” said City Manager Bob Ward. “When the Haines borough was formed, they made a decision not to include Skagway with Klukwan and kept us landlocked; when Haines annexed Excursion Inlet; and the recent consolidation of the city of Haines.”


But Bockhurst assured the Skagway News that inclusion of Skagway into Haines borough was not on the table. On the contrary, he said, the state is more concerned with places like Gustavus, which has no city government and pays for no services in the community.
The borough petition process brought the city around to Thursday night’s public meeting to discuss the DC&ED Preliminary Report Regarding the Skagway Borough Incorporation Proposal. This edition was already printed when the meeting was held. The Local Boundary Board will hold a public hearing on whether to allow Skagway to become a borough on Aug. 31 at the Skagway Council Chambers.
Skagway’s scramble for borough status dates back to the state’s infancy when members of the 1955-56 Alaska Constitutional Convention determined it would be best to carve this state into large boroughs. For the sake of strong, local self-government, boroughs would have the responsibility of local taxation, planning, platting, public schools and delivery of services. The convention members didn’t want Lower 48-style counties that
couldn’t address the needs of vast tracts of land that are difficult to reach and hard to service from a central location in one of the major population centers.
In 1963, four years after Alaska gained statehood in 1959, the state Legislature tried to incorporate Skagway into one of the eight areas identified to be become boroughs. But the Legislature removed Skagway, most likely thanks to legislator Morgan W. Reed. He was from Skagway.
Skagway has stayed in the unorganized borough since then as a first-class city. The unorganized borough was created by the Legislature in 1961, and encompassed all of Alaska until some boroughs were formed.
According to DC&ED, “Alaska’s 16 organized boroughs are inhabited by 545,664 individuals, or nearly 87 percent of the total population of the state. Of the 545,664 residents of organized boroughs in Alaska, approximately 18 percent also live within a city government.”
In order to be approved as borough, Skagway has to meet all 18 of the standards set out by the commission. The most important, in the eyes of the commission, is Standard Number 8 that reads: “The Standards shall include population, geography, economy, transportation, and other factors. Each borough shall embrace an area and population with common interests to the maximum degree possible.”
The preliminary report states the standard in the Skagway proposal is not met, and points to history as one reason why.
An attempt by the city to annex Dyea in the late 1970s was turned down by the Department of Community and Regional Affairs largely because residents there testified that Dyea was a separate community.
A letter that swayed the department then is also quoted this time around in the preliminary report.
“Living in the area that Skagway proposes to annex are about 50 independent people striving to maintain their individuality in the face of growing government pressure. First, the National Park Service stamped its iron fist. The State of Alaska began reclassifying lands in the area. Now the City of Skagway wants a piece of the cake, even if it means knocking over the whole table. Throughout all of this, these 50 people have attended endless meetings and have written dozens of letters. There now exists a
working partnership with the Park Service. The State has been responsive to all interests and has worked out an admirable compromise. But this latest action by Skagway is perhaps the most threatening of all. Here is a populace with a distinctly different living situation, governed perennially by the same apathy-elected City Council members.”
These comments from 1979 are from Willard F. (Skip) Elliott, a Dyea resident who oddly enough would later become Skagway city manager, then the mayor, and now is one of the city’s financial advisors.
Still, Dyea was annexed in 1980.
Bockhorst, who lived in Haines for many years and was its city administrator, as the author of the recent report refers repeatedly to what he sees are the common interests between Haines and Skagway, a common economy based on tourism, a common radio service, shared fishing areas, historical links, road, air and ferry service.
When asked if whether Skagway’s repeated efforts to establish ties with Haines, which have not been reciprocated, indicated a reluctance on Haines’ part, he suggested that Skagway continue trying to find common interests.
In Skagway’s petition, a section referring to the incompatibility of the two cities reads: “Skagway does not wish to become embroiled in the local government confusion and controversies to the west, nor does it wish to be combined against its will with Juneau or other Southeast communities in a rural Southeast super borough. We believe that any of these actions would be counter to responsible and prudent local governance, as this would effectively break apart a municipal government and school district that have provided and enjoyed stable, responsible, active government for almost 100 years.
“However, maintaining the ‘status quo’ is not acceptable either since it does not satisfy the constitutional requirement to form boroughs.”
Skagway is merely trying to uphold the state Constitution and its destiny, Bourcy said.
“We’re mapping our future and not having our future dictated to us. That’s why we’re asking for our borough, because we want local, responsible government,” said Bourcy. “I find it ironic that someone who was living in Haines when Haines and Skagway had no ties should be the author of this report. He knows better than anyone that we are not like communities, since
the beginning.”
As for the stark political split usually seen in Haines politics, Bockhorst points to the recent consolidation vote that passed by a wide margin as a sign that’s changing.
No matter how the board decides, both cities view each other across a chasm wider than the 13 nautical miles that separate them.
When glacial moraine gave way at West Creek Glacier on Tuesday, sending a surge of water that flooded Dyea, Bourcy said he reported it, as required by law, to the State Trooper in Haines. The Trooper did not come to Skagway, Bourcy said.
“We had a full volunteer Emergency Medical Services, Search and Rescue and Fire Department turn out,” said Bourcy. “It is amazing how well that happens here with our resources. We didn’t bother Haines or the state.”


• Heard on the Wind

• Play on the rocks: "Strange Fate of the Clara Nevada"

• Sports and Rec.: Youth Bowling League has great summer

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