I am surprised that Jim Clark, the governor's chief of staff, would take the time to write a letter supporting the closure of Alyeska Central School. Hopefully there are more important matters vying for his attention. His opening statement regarding Murkowski's intent to close Alyeska as a way to accomplish the goal of achieving scaled-down, efficient state government is a joke. Testimony surrounding the closure has indicated a savings of about $1.2 million, which represents only the cost of the summer school program. Closing the program to regular students saves nothing and in fact costs more if students enroll in non-correspondence programs.
Closing Alyeska represents a significant loss of revenue for Juneau. Alyeska employs 40 people in addition to the approximately 20 who were employed for the summer school program. These people cannot simply turn to the Juneau District for jobs. The jobs aren't there. If new jobs are created they will be up north. No big deal? Hardly. When Kmart closed, the loss of 80 jobs was justifiably a major concern for the community. From an economic standpoint alone, closing Alyeska should concern the community.
Clark's comments about making the curriculum developed by Alyeska available to other districts for use in their correspondence programs reveals a lack of understanding on his part of the true uniqueness of the Alyeska program. Alyeska's curriculum will be of little use to other district correspondence programs. This is because having a certified teacher working closely with both students and parents is a key part of Alyeska's program. In most of the other correspondence programs around the state this is not the case. Teachers are not a major component of these programs. Why not? The reason is simple. Teachers cost money. By keeping teachers out of the equation, correspondence programs for these districts represent a cash cow. They make a great deal of money, much of which does not go to the students enrolled in these correspondence programs. The funds support unrelated district activities, such as hiring paid lobbyists. All of Alyeska's funding goes to direct services to students. This aspect of Alyeska's program has somehow escaped Clark and may be partly why he doesn't see it as unique.
I found much of Clark's submission irritating because it is political posturing. The statement that perhaps irritated me most is the one in which he states, "We (I assume he means the governor and himself) will work with parents and students to help identify the best options for their education needs." Really, Mr. Clark. Don't you think that the parents and students who have chosen Alyeska have done so because they do see it as the best option for their education needs? The statement seems to fit with this administration. After a long absence from the state, the governor has returned to save us from ourselves and tell us what we really need. Mr. Clark and some others seem to have lined up behind him. It is unfortunate that in the process, the governor's "phantom plan" may end up dismantling programs and procedures that have been working well for years.
Writing this, I hear in my mind political decision makers saying that I fail to see the big picture and am unwilling to make the hard decisions. I look at it another way. I think I do see the big picture. The people of Alaska are willing to make hard choices. However, political decision makers are unwilling to present the hard choices to us, choices that will really balance the state's budget. They make a big issue out of a program that in reality costs nothing!
As my credentials show, I have a vested interest in writing this. I wonder about the real interest of those working so hard to close Alyeska. Its closure certainly pales in comparison to other issues facing this legislative session. It fails to justify the time being spent to close it. I would prefer to see Clark's comments regarding a state income tax, using permanent fund earnings, or subsistence. Such issues are surely more worthy of his time and are more important to the people he serves.
Dick Luther is a commercial fisherman and private business owner who works part time for Alyeska Central School.