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Alaska village votes yes on school relocation

By Rachel D'Oro
Associated Press / January 4, 2012
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska—Voters in a tiny Native village increasingly eroded by storms on Alaska's northwest coast have overwhelmingly said yes to building a new school 7 miles away, a step some hope will eventually lead to the seemingly impossible task of relocating the remote community.

Kivalina City Clerk Marilyn Swan said the unofficial count in Tuesday's election was 107-11 in favor of the proposed school site in an unoccupied area called Kisimagiuqtuq.

Kivalina administrator Janet Mitchell hopes the support adds new life to a proposal to relocate the crumbling village, one of Alaska's most eroded communities. She also hopes it hastens construction of a long-desired road that would provide economic development and an escape route for the community of 400, which has seen Kivalina shrink from 54 acres decades ago to half that size today.

Kisimagiuqtuq -- about seven miles northeast of the Inupiat Eskimo community -- is on higher ground and may be a potential gravel source.

"This is just the beginning," Mitchell said of the vote, which to her means residents are "ready to move away from Kivalina, and they've been ready for a long time."

Kivalina and at least one other imperiled village, Shishmaref, are planning relocations. But only the Yupik Eskimo village of Newtok, about 460 miles south of Kivalina, has begun the actual physical labor of moving.

Once Kivalina's city council formally counts the votes and certifies the election, the village can proceed with a feasibility study to determine if the proposed school location would work. Other sites have been studied in the past, only to fall short.

If the site is deemed suitable, the village will have to formally request a land transfer from NANA Regional Corp., the Alaska Native corporation that owns the land. Walter Sampson, vice president for NANA's land office, said the process takes about three years.

"It's not an overnight thing," he said. But he added the village can get a permit almost immediately to allow such efforts as feasibility studies.

Kivalina, located 625 miles northwest of Anchorage, is built on an 8-mile barrier reef between the Chukchi Sea and the Kivalina River. It is reachable only by plane or boat, and, in winter, also by snowmobile.

Sea ice historically served as a protective buffer for Kivalina, whose economy is based in part on fishing and subsistence hunting of caribou, seal, whale and walrus. With climate change, however, the ice is forming later and melting sooner because of higher temperatures. That has left the village more vulnerable to storm waves and surges that pummel many of Alaska's coastal communities. A massive storm that slammed much of the coast in November churned waves toward the village that were clocked at 25 mph.

Funding for the school would stem from a recent agreement by the state to settle a lawsuit that alleged inequities in funding for rural public schools. Tribal leaders also are exploring funding avenues for a road to link the village and the school site should it be officially chosen.

A judge must still approve the agreement, which calls for the governor to seek legislative approval for funding five high-priority rural school construction projects -- including one for Kivalina -- over the next four years. Estimates have put the total cost of the projects at nearly $146 million.

The plaintiffs, who include parents, reserved the right to reopen the case if funding isn't provided as stipulated in the agreement. But the case would remain closed if lawmakers decide against funding the Kivalina project or place contingencies on it over concerns about erosion or the viability of the school site.

The current school in Kivalina was built in the mid-1970s and is now deteriorating and too small for the population, said Norm Eck, superintendent of the Northwest Arctic Borough School District. He estimated the cost of building a new school at up to $40 million.

Eck welcomed the outcome of Tuesday's election.

"I think it's wonderful," he said. "It really shows that the community is thinking about their children, the students, and they want to do the best they can for them."

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