March 13, 2014 | Volume 44, Number 10

School board votes to close Mosquito Lake

The Haines Borough school board voted 6-0 Tuesday to close the Mosquito Lake School.

Member Brian Clay abstained. No members of the public testified on the issue.

school board members said their decision could be revisited if there are 10 students identified who express interest in attending school there.

The vote follows the recommendation of the district-organized Mosquito Lake School Task Force that the school close for the coming school year, but that it reopen “as soon as it is feasible to do so” and that the borough facilitate re-opening by maintaining the school and its ground.

In a letter to the board, the task force said it didn’t reach its recommendation lightly. “It is evident that a declining population means a loss of revenue that provides services. Education, however, is not merely a service. Education is a duty the community owes its children.”

Closing the school won’t deny students an education, but it will make “access to a high-quality education… more challenging,” the report says.

Principal Cheryl Stickler served on the task force with upper highway parents and Mosquito Lake School staff. Stickler said a survey of parents found that the current enrollment of five students at the school would increase only by one or two students in the coming year. Without at least 10 students, the district loses separate-site funding of the school provided by the state.

Brainstorming at a January meeting, advocates of the school suggested three options for the school’s future: 1) busing students from town to the school at 27 Mile Haines Highway, 2) establishing the school as a satellite for home-school parents and 3) establishing a special, place-based curriculum at the school, including an outdoors element.

The survey, that went to families of district students in grades K-4 and homeschoolers, found little or no interest in busing to Mosquito Lake School. A discussion of using the school in conjunction with homeschool parents didn’t go anywhere, partly because a family interested in that option was out of town.

Another option, creating a “magnet” school with its own curriculum, would take more time than is available before next year, Stickler said. Establishing such a school is a “chicken-egg situation,” she said. “You need a program to draw students to the school but you need to know what students you have to develop the program they want.”

Stickler said Mosquito Lake is an ideal setting for a place-based school but establishing such a program would be formidable at a time of declining budgets and staff. Besides manpower to design a curriculum for such a school, the right teacher would have to be found to staff it, she said.

Task force member Annie Wallers, who lives on Mosquito Lake Road, has sent two of her children to Mosquito Lake. She said a place-based school curriculum was never clearly articulated, and only two respondents to the survey showed an interest in such a program. Wallers said she never had a problem with the educational program at Mosquito Lake.

Her daughter is a second-grader there. Wallers’ husband Carl, a logger who works in the upper valley, said their daughter wants to stay at Mosquito Lake, but it doesn’t look like that’s going to happen. “I like (the school) because it’s close. That’s the main thing,” Carl Wallers said. He said his daughter has expressed interest in going to school in town if Mosquito Lake closes, but she may not like it. “It’s going to be a long day. She’ll be getting on a bus at 7:15 and not getting back until 4. She gets cranky.”

Principal Stickler said a surge in the preschool population could reopen the school. “There’s a population bubble coming so it’s possible the numbers will be there for the 2015-16 school year. It’s suggested the borough keep the building maintained so it can be reopened and operated as a school.”

Longtime district teacher Jeanne Kitayama wrote school board members this week, asking if the board would consider keeping the school open until a final enrollment count in October. Kitayama said structural and landscape changes at the school could make it more inviting. She suggested a school with an alternative program, including a four-day week and extended school year.

“Certainly it does not seem likely that the school will reopen if it is closed. People will adjust to the new norm,” Kitayama wrote.

Members of the task force included Mosquito Lake teacher Kate Baerlocher, and upper highway residents John Hunt, Margaret McLaughlin, Erika Merklin, Jessica Rettinger, Brad Schulze, Trevor Sutcliffe, Annie Wallers and Katrina Zahnow.

Also Tuesday, the board discussed hiring a new superintendent. Sixteen have applied for the job. The board hopes to make a hire by the end of March. On Tuesday, it developed a three-day visit schedule for finalists for the job.

The board this week also approved contracts to seven non-tenured teachers working for the district.