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Ben Eielson Jr./Sr. High School to be closed this year

High school entrance for Ben Eielson Junior/Senior High School
Project 360
Fairbanks North Star Borough School District
High school entrance for Ben Eielson Junior/Senior High School

Just after midnight this morning, the Fairbanks North Star Borough School Board voted to close Ben Eielson Junior/Senior High School. They postponed voting on the closure of other schools to instead focus on the budget. The board resumes meeting tonight.

A motion to close both Ben Eielson Junior/Senior High School and Ticasuk Brown Elementary School was originally on the agenda before the budget discussion. But the board reordered the agenda to talk about the budget first.

Borough Mayor Bryce Ward came to the meeting and gave his prediction for local and state revenue.

“I think it's reasonable to expect something along the lines of $60 million in local contribution, and a $340 increase to the BSA from the State of Alaska.”

When asked if he would present that $60 million figure in his budget for the entire borough, Ward backed off a bit a says that’s not certain.

“I think for your discussions and deliberations tonight, what I would expect is to look at numbers provided last year, and that was $54 million from local contribution and that $340 from the state additional to the BSA.”

He said he would present his budget to the Borough Assembly on April 3. The school district is required to get its budget to the borough mayor no later than April 1st.

Although they are separate procedural motions, the board integrated its school-closure discussion into the budget work. Members have been running scenarios in these hours-long meetings the last two days (both Monday and Tuesday's meetings went past midnight) that have used calculations for revenue from the state and the local contribution from the borough.

They have been using an electronic tool called “Balancing Act” that shows on a screen all the proposed cuts, so everyone in the room and the hundreds watching online can see them. Board President Brandy Harty asked district staff to show what happens to the budget without closing the two schools.

“I want the public to pay real close attention to this: Uncheck both schools.  Now go to the required local contribution, and max it out.  Even with it all the way to the max -- which we have heard from Mayor Ward, is not possible under the current tax cap -- a $69 million contribution from the borough, we still cannot pass a balanced budget.

It's not going to get us where we need to go. And that's the most devastating thing of this whole process. There's, there's just nowhere else to go.”

After lengthy discussion, the board voted to remove all funds from Ben Eielson Junior/Senior High School in the budget. Then the board took another vote as a more formal step required by the state, to clarify that the district will close the school. Tim Doran and student representative Raul Lopez, who attends Eielson, voted against the closure.

Several board members argued that Ticasuk Brown’s status as a Title 1 school, with special programs for students in poverty, should not be closed this year. The board still has that item on its agenda for this evening, as well as finishing balancing the district budget with more cuts.

Tonight’s meeting begins at 5:30.

Robyne began her career in public media news at KUAC, coiling cables in the TV studio and loading reel-to-reel tape machines for the radio station.