Cordova Jr./Sr. High School is seen on Aug. 10, 2021. File photo by Zachary Snowdon Smith for The Cordova Times

Cordovans celebrated when one of their own walked away from the Association of Alaska School Boards’ (AASB) annual conference earlier this month with a major accolade, though budgetary concerns dominated the event.   

Barb Jewell, president of the Cordova School Board, received the major award of the event: The Carl Rose Governance Award (previously called the Outstanding School Board Member of the Year Award). 

“Barb is marvelous. She’s a wonderful individual who’s done a lot for the schools,” said Peter Hoepfner, vice-president of the Cordova School Board and longtime colleague of Jewell. 

“I was shocked and pretty overwhelmed,” Jewell said about learning she had been selected for the award. “The other folks who were nominated were extremely deserving and accomplished, and committed school board members.” 

Jewell was nominated by the other members of the Cordova School Board for the statewide award.  

“Just being nominated by my own board was really an honor, and then to be chosen across the state was pretty amazing,” Jewell said. “I’m really grateful and inspired to continue doing this work.” 


Despite the cause for celebration, both Jewell and Hoepfner join school board members across the state in their concern over the lack of resources available to Alaska schools and increasingly tight budgets. Addressing this issue was a topic of conversation at the conference in Anchorage from Nov. 9-12, and the AASB even passed a resolution asking for an increase in education funding. 

“School districts are really concerned about not having the resources they need to meet the education needs of our kids, we’re all pretty worried about that,” Jewell said. “We are trying to figure out a way to carry that message to not only legislatures but everyone throughout the state.” 

Jewell said investment in education is vital to the health and wellness of the state. 

Jewell and the AASB said this investment could resemble an increase in the base student allocation to bring the state to 2017 numbers, which won’t meet all the needs of school boards but would cover inflation increases.  

Jewell said the Cordova School Board will be sharing their funding information and needs with the city council as they develop their budget for next year. 

“It’s terribly sad to see this defunding of education,” said Hoepfner about the statewide decline in education funding since 2007. Hoepfner said one challenge is to get people to understand how education is funded within the state. For example, “you can plug holes with one-time funding but it doesn’t add any stability,” he explained. 

As a result of the tight budgets, school districts have had difficulty hiring and retaining teachers. Hoepfner said this was especially true in rural communities, and when teachers are hired from outside the state they can struggle with rural living and cultural competencies.  

Teachers are paid much more in other states, and in Cordova the grocery store pays more than teaching aid positions, said Hoepfner. Hoepfner said seeing teacher turnover damages the morale of students. 

“We’ve reached a critical mass,” Hoepfner said about staffing pressures. “I’m pretty frightened.”  

Jewell concurs. She said the biggest challenge across the state and in Cordova is the recruitment and retention of teachers, and called it “one of the biggest risks we face in education.” 

Both Jewell and Hoepfner said that the defined benefits retirement system is one area the state can look at changing to address this issue. 

But even when districts are able to recruit staff, teachers face another hurdle in finding accessible housing. Both Jewell and Hoepfner said this is a common refrain they’ve heard about staff coming to Cordova due to the lack of available land and housing options. They told one story about a teaching couple that was all ready to move to Cordova and begin teaching, but had to bow out because they couldn’t find affordable housing in the city. 

Jewell said that on a city level, there is a huge need for pre-kindergarten offerings — which aren’t funded by the state. While at the conference, Jewell heard about a national grant available to support pre-kindergarten.   

Jewell said this is “one of the reasons why I go to these conferences every year,” and that the conferences are full of smart and dedicated people working on behalf of Alaska’s children. 

When it came to celebrating Cordova education wins, both Hoepfner and Jewell lauded Cordova’s hard-working teachers for their dedication and passion, and emphasized the district’s success in improving literacy in Cordova’s children through the learning reading program. 

Jewell noted that Cordova’s education system is consistently one of the best in the state. 

“It’s a remarkable education system here in Cordova,” Hoepfner said. 

Hoepfner said it was an “excellent AASB annual meeting” with the 53 districts across the state. 

“We’re all for children,” Hoepfner said. “We’re all standing for education and students. We want to increase student achievement.” 

This story originally ran in the Nov. 24, 2023 issue of The Cordova Times.