Cordova High School students and teachers wore red on April 24, 2024 to protest Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s veto of an educational package and the legislature’s inability to override it. The school is facing budget cuts because the package didn’t pass. Photos by Kyi Carino

By Kyi Gasmen

Cordova High School students and staff are continuing to protest the cuts in the new Cordova School District budget, although programs will likely stay afloat for another year thanks to a $700,000 donation from the Native Village of Eyak.  

The cuts resulted from the Alaska Legislature’s failure to override Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s veto on an educational package — involving “faster internet for rural schools, increases for transportation and funding for pay raises, building maintenance and the Reads Act,” as stated on Alaska House District 2 Rep. Rebecca Himshoot’s Instagram page. The new Cordova School District (CSD) budget reflects the effects of a Base Student Allocation (BSA) that fails to accrue with inflation, involving a cut to Cordova High School’s (CHS) extracurriculars, the possible loss of a physical education teacher, a guidance counselor and more. 

On May 1, the school board arranged a workshop to discuss the school’s four-day class schedule and the budget for the school district as a whole. There, it was made public that the Native Village of Eyak is donating $700,000 to the district’s extracurricular and free-lunch programs, effectively ensuring the district will be able to maintain its extracurricular activities and free lunches for next school year. This donation undoubtedly eases the district’s $1.5 million dollar deficit; however, that deficit is not applicable to just next year, but the years after. 

Juniors Samaya Faber and Elizabeth Heidbrink, who attended the workshop, also told The Cordova Times that School Board Vice President Pete Hoepfner said at the workshop that CSD could “only afford one aide” — and that aide gets paid almost the same as high school students working at the Bidarki Recreation Center. Those high school students at Bidarki are all part-time workers earning $19.93 per hour, high school junior and Bidarki staff member Chiko Jacob told The Cordova Times.  

CSD Superintendent Alex Russin said that “given the current Legislature and the current governorship, I would imagine that we would be having the same conversation next year.” When discussing what the district may lose next year, Russin specifies that they might lose a kindergarten teacher, be unable to replace the retiring high school math teacher Hans Werner, lose $200,000 from the district’s scholarship fund and $100,000 from the district’s fund balance. 

Advertisement

The recent budget talks come after a wave of demonstrations, including the most recent on April 24 where CHS students wore red, for the hashtag, RedForEducation, and walked out during class to protest around town. This protest was part of a statewide movement organized by the Alaska Association of Student Governments. In a domino-effect, teacher unions around the state also organized that day to wear red, protesting Dunleavy’s veto and the Legislature’s failure to override it. On April 24, less than a week after CSD’s budget was released, the local teacher’s union walked into school and saw they were not the only ones protesting. The student body caught on to the movement and as a result, the school was filled with red apparel. CHS, whose official colors are blue, white, and silver, had created a red ocean of staff and students alike.  

Students feared the loss of opportunity within their school. They questioned how the school, which was rated the No. 1 high school in Alaska by the U.S. News and World Report, could not offer extracurricular activities and be without a P.E. teacher and guidance counselor. They wondered what the cuts mean for their futures.  

Junior Noah Pearson, when he found out about the first proposed budget for the next school year, said, “The budget for next year has me in uproar. The fact of no sports for next year could have me moving across the country.” Pearson plays number 14 on the CHS’ basketball team, is a member of the CHS concert band and jazz band and is an asset to the region’s trumpet section, being first chair this year. “Not having sports is detrimental to my mental health and [sports] keep me in a good mindset throughout the year,” he said.  

Pearson also said the lack of funding from other schools may affect the school district because they may not have teams to play even if the CSD can get funding through sponsorships and donations.  

Sophomore Phoebe Tschappet said she feels, “that students’ academic performances would be affected because of lack of things such as extracurricular activities and electives due to the budget.” Tshappet — who is a prominent figure in the CHS Music Program, being a state soloist, and is part of the cheer team–expressed that she felt powerless about the situation. “If I was to lose the ability to pursue music, then I feel that I would lose a sense of achievement and the rewarding sense that I’m gaining from it.” 

In regards to the initial possibility of losing the school’s guidance counselor, Tshappet said, “the guidance counselor plays such an important role in the school, helping students with academic, social and emotional challenges.” Adding that, “they play a vital role in the students wellbeing and academic success. The school would look a lot different without these things.” 

First year Adelaide Botz also took a stand on the school’s initial budget. “A school that offers no extracurricular programs truly takes out the heart of the student body,” she said.   

Botz participates in the CHS volleyball and cheer teams, alongside being a state soloist in the CHS Music Program. She said that “for some students, extracurriculars are something that drives them to succeed academically. These activities build character, passion and skills … it widens social circles and allows you to get to know people you may have not spoken to otherwise. This is not only important to the students but also to the community.” Botz also expressed opinions about the governor’s veto and the Legislature’s failure to override it. “It’s very disheartening to have someone with little care for children’s academics and education to have so much power in the state,” she said.   

“The school is already understaffed, so losing more teachers is just putting more stress and work on the ones who remain,” Botz said. She emphasized the value of having teachers “who can teach well in one specialized field; but with the lack of staff we have, a lot of teachers teach subjects they might not know as much about.” 

Russin admits the situation has put a “very heavy mental toll” on him. He said that “teachers potentially have the biggest change or impact on their work environment” as affected by the BSA failing to keep up with inflation.  

“If we were only able to have one teacher per grade level — let’s say at the elementary school — then all of a sudden that doubles the number of students that one teacher would have … and they’d still be getting paid the same.” He also mentions that some staff, including himself, have considered leaving education because of the state’s lack of support for public schools. “Sometimes I wonder if I could be doing something different,” Russin said.  

As the state continues its struggle to fund the public education system, schools are beginning to lose the resources necessary to educate the minds of the next generations. As for what the community can do to help, Russin said the best thing to do is to “advocate for public school funding by emailing our [legislators] and by emailing the governor.  

“Just tell your story,” he said.  

This story originally ran in the May 10 issue of The Cordova Times.

Advertisement