Fairweather flap pinches school travel

Idled ferry forces schools to look at higher costs or canceling trips

Posted: Monday, January 31, 2005

While the fast ferry Fairweather sits idle in Ketchikan because of a contract dispute, the only thing "fast" about the vessel is the way its absence is draining several schools' travel budgets.

The state took the Fairweather out of service on Jan. 23 after it was unable to reach labor agreements with two of three crew unions over the ferry's revised winter schedule.

Last-minute schedule changes resulting from the ferry's removal have forced several Southeast Alaska schools to make a difficult choice: spend thousands of dollars more to pay for plane tickets, let students miss more school days, or cancel long-awaited trips.

At least two districts have found that traveling by air will cost more than four times what was budgeted for the same trip aboard a ferry. If they revise trips to use the remaining ferries, students may miss additional days of school.

"The schedule we're operating under right now is going to bankrupt our activities budget, and we have to weigh the educational effects," Haines activities director Charlie Jones said. "It has made travel much more difficult and much more expensive."

When the Fairweather was running, Jones said Haines students could get in a half-day of school on Thursday before hopping aboard the fast ferry to Juneau at 2:30 p.m. and making connections to weekend events.

With the Fairweather gone, the only southbound ferry departures out of Haines this month and next are on Monday and Friday evenings. The former takes students out of school too long, while the latter operates too late for the Glacier Bears to reach most weekend games and events.

Jones said taking the Fairweather to Juneau from Haines at group rates costs from $13 to $17 per student, one-way. Plane tickets to Juneau run roughly $75 per student, one-way.

Haines already has canceled its boys and girls basketball teams' trip to next weekend's Icy Strait Tournament in Hoonah due to the cost of flying and time constraints. Jones said students needed to be back in school on Monday for an event, and there were concerns about return flights being grounded due to weather.

Skagway also is dealing with increased student travel costs due to the Fairweather's absence. Superintendent Michael Dickens said the district originally budgeted $1,680 for this weekend's basketball trip to Kake, which relied on the fast ferry. He said switching to air travel for the whole trip was expected to raise the cost to at least $7,000.

And, as it turns out, poor weather in Skagway and Juneau kept the boys and girls teams grounded Thursday and Friday and forced the trip to be canceled. The schools will have to work to reschedule their games.

"We have a budget that has gone through the roof," Skagway activities director Gary Trozzo said Tuesday. "We can't plan anything, and it hurts other teams coming in here."

Two accidents and engine problems took the Fairweather out of service several times last year, causing additional disruption to Skagway school travel.

"If you're committed to go to these communities ... it's not fair" to cancel, Dickens said. "It's very unfortunate (that) the Fairweather has compromised our situation two or three times already this (school) year."

Juneau-Douglas High School student travel has not yet been affected by the most recent Fairweather cancellation, because the drama, debate and forensics team went to Haines and the junior varsity basketball squads played in Skagway earlier this month while the fast ferry still was running.

The next JDHS trip that could involve the Fairweather is not until May.

Hoonah student trips also have not yet been affected, but the events it is hosting have. Hoonah High School principal Michael Byer said Haines' basketball-trip cancellation has caused a lot of disappointment.

"We were going to have one of the nicest, biggest Icy Strait Tournaments we have ever had," Byer said. "Haines was supposed to come down, but they've had to cancel. ... (The ferry shutdown is) at the expense of the communities. ...

"Haines and Hoonah had a traditional rivalry before they created size classifications (in high school sports). People were very excited about the prospect of rekindling that."

Byer said coordinating student travel is a time-consuming, complex process without having to deal with sudden cancellations. While the state and unions may be at an impasse in the Fairweather dispute, Byer said Southeast Alaska schools are united.

"We're ready to settle," he said.

In the meantime, affected schools are trying to reschedule games when possible. Jones said Haines and Metlakatla worked out some alternative basketball game times and dates to fit revised travel plans last week. The schools' boys teams played a Monday-Tuesday series at Metlakatla, for example, but a midday or midweek game rarely draws the same ticket sales and community support as a Friday night event.

"The schools are trying to work together, but it has an effect on the community," Jones said. "Our gate goes down, and our kids don't have as much of an audience."

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• Andrew Krueger can be reached at andrew.krueger@juneauempire.com.

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