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The band plays on -- for free

Around Alaska

By Heather Lende

(Published: September 22, 2002)

Haines -- Twenty-five ago, Haines was a sawmill town with a fishing fleet. The same stores and bars were open in January and June. But the remote Alaska mill couldn't compete in an international market, and most Americans value the standing trees in the Tongass National Forest more than clear-cuts. Now, like lots of other rural communities, we are a seasonal fishing and tourist town. My favorite organic-pizza place has already closed until next year. Because it's not that rural -- there are sidewalks and a road out -- and it is really pretty, Haines has become a retirement community.

The last economic survey revealed that 39 percent of the people who live here don't depend on local jobs for a living. Which is a good thing, since there aren't many. Outside magazine chose us as one of their top-10 places to live if you win the lottery. Like the best women's underwear, Haines has no visible means of support.

But a new library is going up, we're expanding the harbor, building a big playground in Tlingit Park, and the hospice volunteers are doing nice things for dying people. We finally voted to have one government and will start that new chapter in our history in October.

Lately though, trouble from high up, like the snow creeping lower down the mountainsides, is getting harder to ignore.

We all heard that state budget cuts last spring mean the Department of Transportation won't plow many roads this winter. We assumed that by the time it actually snowed, whoever made that ridiculous decision would cry uncle and refund the money.

My neighbor called the other evening. "They have to plow, don't they?" she asked. School buses need to run, she said. "It's the law, right?" She decided to make a few more calls and would let me know what she found out. The news, she said, isn't good. Maybe they really aren't going to plow Mud Bay Road. We should make plans to hire someone to do it -- soon, she said. It could be my only option, besides snowshoes, for getting the kids to school.

That is, if the school is still open.

Haines has taken some hard hits lately -- from the major cruise line leaving to low fish prices -- and it shows, especially in classrooms.

Last year there were 376 students in kindergarten through grade 12. Now there are 313. The superintendent guessed we'd lose 10, not 63. Over the summer, five teachers retired or moved and weren't replaced. Last week, the playground supervisors and janitors were let go. The heat hasn't been turned on in the gym. The school district is $400,000 in the hole and has no legal way to climb out. The borough already gives the maximum allowable local contribution, and the teachers all have contracts.

There is coffeeshop talk that a new administration in Juneau will fix everything. Murkowski says he'll help us make money by reviving the timber industry. If the derelict sawmill and clear-cutting the backdrop for cruise ships are our best hope, Haines is in bigger trouble than I thought. Ulmer's promise to "inflation-proof" education funds is more realistic, but it won't help schools that need money now.

At an emotional school board meeting, parents, teachers and students made desperate pleas to stop the bleeding at the school before the patient dies. If there are more cuts, kids said, they'd start looking elsewhere for high school -- living with relatives out of town or at boarding schools like Mt. Edgecumbe in Sitka. One boy said if the auto shop closes, five more kids might quit before getting diplomas.

A normally mild-mannered Baha'i leader got angry. "We need to stand up to the state," he said. "Let's run until were out of money and shut the whole thing down in March. Then what will they do?"

He got a burst of applause, but afterward there was more uneasiness. Is that really the best thing for our kids? What about the seniors who wouldn't graduate?

District officials say even if we could find the money somewhere, it won't help. They say the state will pull from next year's budget anything over the limit that we spend now.

The school district secretary's husband works for DOT and soon will be laid off. This is all double trouble for her. She says the roads won't be plowed, even for school buses. "I guess we'll all get snowmobiles."

As to the school budget woes, she doesn't know how we'll get through the school year. "There's nothing more we can do," she says, until next spring, when teachers' contracts are up. But she doesn't say that with a smile. She grew up here; her father is a retired teacher.

As a mother of three schoolchildren said, "If you cut school programs, families will leave. If you cut teachers, their families will leave. Everything you do in Haines has a domino effect."

Some people say we should be down in Juneau demanding snowplowing and school funding. But no one is because it hasn't snowed yet, and in our hearts we don't believe state budget cuts will target children first. "Can you imagine closing schools?" Said one teacher: "Who would ever do that?"

At the high school open house, the principal was upbeat and emphatic that the school wouldn't go under on his watch -- "No matter what you have heard in the produce aisle -- and I've heard it too: The school will not close. It will not happen. We will get through this and make education in Haines even better." The choir sang, the band played and the girls in the Family Careers and Community Leaders of America club served sugar cookies and juice.

Heather Lende lives and writes in Haines.

©Copyright 2002, Anchorage Daily News

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