Highway could bring savings in school travel

Posted: Friday, March 18, 2005

The Road Series

The Juneau Bears Pee Wee hockey team spent $1,700 on round-trip ferry tickets getting to Skagway on March 4.

The waterway was just the first leg of the team's trip to Whitehorse, Yukon, and each of the 11- and 12-year-old players had to put up $168 for it. Several couldn't and were left behind that Friday evening.

"The kids miss Monday school, and they're probably going to miss Tuesday, because they're going to be tired," coach Lance Miller said aboard the state ferry Matanuska. "If there were a road, we'd be back Sunday night."

Those hockey teams aren't school-sponsored. But the same issues of money and timing apply to school-related travel.

A proposed Skagway-to-Juneau road would make it cheaper for students in sports and other activities to travel between the towns, school officials in Upper Lynn Canal said. And the students likely would miss fewer school days than they do now as they travel for events.

"There would be savings right away for our student activities program," said Michael Dickens, superintendent of the Skagway City School District.

Sandi Wagner, Juneau-Douglas High School activities director, said traveling on a road would be cheaper than flying and more convenient than riding a ferry.

But Juneau schools Superintendent Peggy Cowan said Juneau students wouldn't use the road to get north to Railbelt schools. Fairbanks would still be more than 800 miles by road.

Dickens and the school principal in Haines offered serious drawbacks to a road.

For Skagway, any advantage of easier and cheaper access would be outweighed by the loss of state education dollars if the roadway siphoned money and jobs to Juneau, Dickens said. Some Skagway residents fear the loss of shipping activity, for instance, if Juneau's port were connected.

"Our student count and the money we get from the state would be impacted," he said.

If the 108-student district loses even a few students, it would fall under a different category in the state funding formula and could lose $120,000, Dickens said.

The district now receives about $800,000 in state funds. Less funding would mean fewer teachers and fewer courses, he said.

To Charlie Jones, the principal of Haines schools, the real effect of the road would be to take money away from the ferry system. His district relies on ferries for travel throughout Southeast Alaska. The mainline ferry service already is inadequate, he believes, and his district can't afford to fly students.

The road "will have absolutely no more effect than the (fast ferry) Fairweather did at its best," Jones said. "We can get to Juneau, but from there we still have to use the ferry or fly. The best solution would be better ferry service."

The Fairweather joined Alaska's fleet last year but was stalled by mishaps and this winter ceased service for nearly two months during a state labor dispute. The smaller craft better than halved ferry travel times in Lynn Canal, compressing the 80-mile Juneau-Haines run into about two hours.

Haines students participate in many activities in Juneau, ranging from field trips to the Capitol to music festivals and track meets.

"When (an event) is in Juneau, the road would be nice," said Jones, who recently collected visiting students from the Haines ferry dock at 11 at night. "When it's not in Juneau, the road would not be so nice."

• Empire reporter Korry Keeker contributed to this story.

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