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Murkowski Talks Education and Community Infrastructure in Visits to Nome and Unalakleet

Sen. Lisa Murkowski takes questions from students at Nome-Beltz Jr/Sr High on Thursday. Photo: Laura Kraegel, KNOM.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski addressed more than port development during her visits to Nome and Unalakleet last week. While meeting with local leaders and students, the senator also talked education and community infrastructure.

Her trip began on Thursday with a stop at Nome-Beltz Jr./Sr. High, where she shook students’ hands throughout the hallways and peeked into the gym, catching a few minutes of basketball practice before the Subway Showdown. She then took questions from students in the government class, on student council, and from the junior high.

“It was good,” said Student Body President Samuel Cross. “It wasn’t as in-depth as I was expecting, but I was really happy to hear her thoughts on some pretty controversial topics.”

Those topics included the state’s dismal financial situation — and how it might affect the region going forward. Murkowski said she doesn’t want an income tax in Alaska, but she thinks every option should be up for discussion, including instating a tax and adjusting the way PFD payouts are calculated.

When it comes to education, though, Murkowski said the state should be careful when making cuts. She spoke against potential legislation that would raise minimum enrollment and possibly close 60 small schools statewide, including two in Nome and one in the Bering Strait School District. She called the idea “the best way to kill a community in rural Alaska.”

On the federal level, Murkowski praised recent legislation that overturned the “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001. The senator said that law gave Washington, D.C., too much power over local education policy.

She said its replacement — the “Every Student Succeeds” Act — will rightly return control to community school districts and boards of education.

“One of the solutions under ‘No Child Left Behind:’ If you have a school that isn’t doing well, the first thing you do is get rid of the principal,” she said. “Well, in rural Alaska, in far too many of our schools, we can’t get a principal for love nor money. So that’s not the answer, but that was what you had to do. Getting it back to the local level is going to be transformational.”

On Friday, Murkowski arrived in Unalakleet and continued to focus on the local level. She met with more than 30 area leaders at the Community Hall, covering everything from poor internet access and increased flooding to high energy costs and the difficulty of developing roads.

The biggest topic was Unalakleet’s water crisis. Several leaders emphasized their water and sewer infrastructure is leaking and aging at the expense of public health. The community is looking to build wells as a short-term solution before moving the main water source from Powers Creek to the North River — a long-term project estimated to cost $15 million.

Jacob Ivanoff — the president of the Native Village of Unalakleet — said the senator’s visit was very timely as the community was on notice to reserve water while she was there.

“Our water facility is deteriorating in the storm surges,” he said. “I found out today that we’re not getting water to the community right now. There’s no water pumping out of the pump house system, so that’s something we’ll be able to discuss with her — that we’re not getting water right now.”

What will come from those discussions, however, is still unclear. Murkowski said she took notes throughout the trip, as did her rural specialist, Deborah Vo of St. Mary’s. The senator said she and her staff will go over all of the information when they’re back in Washington to see what can be done through phone calls and letters as opposed to legislation.

Murkowski said Unalakleet’s water situation is a priority, but given the extent of the problem, solutions may take some time.

“The water issues — it’s not just Unalakleet that’s dealing with aging infrastructure,” she said. “How can we figure out some more immediate responses through the reparations bill that we’re putting together right now for this next year? Making sure the programs that we have in place — the line items in the budget — work in rural Alaska.”

Murkowski left Unalakleet on Friday afternoon and is back in Washington, D.C., today.