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LIME VILLAGE - Nobody shoveled a path to the front door when snow piled high in the Lime Village schoolyard this month. But it's no matter. The one-room school closed in September.
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"We tried opening the school but couldn't get any more than six (students). When a school drops below 10, the state stops funding a school," said Joe Banghart, superintendent of Iditarod Area School District.
It is the latest casualty in this smallest of Southwest Alaska villages, where the pinch of isolation and the rising cost of living is especially sharp. Fuel arrives only by air to this village on the Stony River, and even the mail plane comes just once a month. The health clinic closed years ago.
Lime Village has just 11 residents, says Ursula Graham, its new village administrator, who splits her time between California and the village. Students and their families have gone off to Stony River, McGrath and Anchorage. Some reportedly study by correspondence from Lime Village.
Village school enrollment has never been high, a reflection of the small numbers. In 1990, the village had 42 residents. In 2000, it was up to 46. Then came the precipitous slide in recent years.
Miska Waskey is one who has stayed, so far, though he now has lost his janitor job at the school - one of the few jobs in town. After mopping the floors and washing windows for 25 years, he said he misses the afternoon job where the students called him "Uncle" - most were family, after all.
He recalls more bustling years at the school, when bright-eyed students tromped into school in 15 pairs of muddy boots in September - making for an especially messy mud season.
"It was kind of hard back then," he said.
With the student body small enough to sit at just two long tables, he said his job had slowed in recent years, but he still walked to school to vacuum the rugs and tidy up the classroom every day after school.
The school district closed two schools in recent years, and Banghart said he expects the school in Nikolai, population 200, to close next year. Its enrollment now teeters at 10.25 students - one student attended for just a quarter of the census period.
"You look at all those buildings and all the money we put into those schools. And now a lot of them are having to close. It's heartbreaking," Banghart said.
If the school's closing was a disaster for the village, it is one they predicted. At last year's graduation, a glance around the school made the future abundantly clear: one student was graduating, and none were on the way.
"They knew they were probably going to lose their school," he said.
As school enrollments dwindle toward the all-important 10-student threshold, some villages "borrow" students from other schools to temporarily bolster enrollment during the fall census period. This has been the difference between opening the doors for another year or locking it up for good.
"That happens at several sites across the state," he said. "We were hoping that the community would bring children in. They have in the past, but they didn't bring anybody in this year."
Closing a school doesn't necessarily mean it will stay closed. Classes began at Platinum's Arviq school this fall for the first time in several years.
"We just now reopened because they're back to 10 kids," said Bill Ferguson, Lower Kuskokwim School District superintendent.
The school's resurrection wasn't an accident. Ferguson said the village drew families to the village to bring children to its school.
"They created some jobs for families with kids to come back to town," he said.