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Get Alaska statewide news from the stations of the Alaska Public Radio Network (APRN). With a central news room in Anchorage and contributing reporters spread across the state, we capture news in the Voices of Alaska and share it with the world. Tune in to your local APRN station in Alaska, visit us online at APRN.ORG or subscribe to the Alaska News podcast right here. These are individual news stories, most of which appear in Alaska News Nightly (available as a separate podcast).
Updated: 2 min 34 sec ago

What’s on Gov. Walker’s Federal Wish-List?

Wed, 2014-12-17 14:45

Alaska has more federal land than most states and depends more on federal spending, so Alaska’s governors always have a substantial list of priorities they want Congress or the Administration to accomplish. Like governors before him, Bill Walker says the item at the top of his federal wish-list is opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil development. Alaska’s congressional delegation has been trying for decades, but Walker believes opening ANWR is politically possible.

“I think it is,” he said in a recent interview. “I’m not a stranger to that issue, and I’ve been in D.C. many times over the years on that issue. We’ve come close in the past, so that is certainly going to be a priority for me, absolutely.”

He also wants the Obama Administration to expedite all necessary permits and reviews for the Alaska Natural Gas pipeline. The project is a joint effort of the state and the private sector, but Walker says the feds can help by streamlining the regulatory timetable.

“Not bypassing the public involvement or process at all but, rather than moving one permit and then the next permit, maybe moving some permits at the same time,” Walker said.

Clearly, money matters. Walker this week submitted a bare-bones capital budget that relies mostly on federal funds. Walker says he’s a big fan of infrastructure, and projects that have federal funding are good candidates for the capital budget. But when it comes to the Knik Arm bridge, which isn’t in his first budget, federal construction funds aren’t the only consideration. Walker says he’s concerned about the cost of operation and maintenance.

“And we have to sort of figure out this incredible deficit, one of the largest in our state’s history, so it’s hard to ignore that,” he said.

Alaska, like most states, has an office in Washington D.C. It’s has five state employees, led for the past three years by Kip Knudson, the director of state and federal relations. Walker hasn’t yet announced who he’ll appoint to the job.

Categories: Alaska News

Proposed Anchorage Ban on Commercial Pot Fails in Assembly

Wed, 2014-12-17 02:15

The Anchorage Assembly’s vote last night to uphold the state’s timetable for developing commercial marijuana guidelines has state-wide implications.

As the largest potential market for commercial pot, much of the drive behind the proposed measure was to leverage Anchorage’s size in order to shape how regulations develop in the year ahead.

“This goes back to an absolute opportunity to negotiate from a position of strength, not to be a follower,” explained Assembly member Amy Demboski, who introduced the bill as a “wait and see” approach. “To me this is an opportunity to be problem-solvers, not to be obstructionist, it’s literally to look at it and say ‘ok, how do we proceed carefully.’”

Almost a hundred people came to last night’s meeting, many of them to share their feelings on the marijuana ordinance. The majority of those who spoke during public testimony opposed the ban, citing reasons that spanned the ideological spectrum, appealing to democracy, tax policy, and even scripture as they made their case.

Likewise, those testifying to keep commercial marijuana out of Anchorage offered a diverse range of reasons.

“We don’t need another industry promoting the use and increased use of another intoxicant,” explained Jeff Jesse, CEO of the Alaska Mental Health Trust, who believes commercialization could exacerbate Alaska’s already-high rate of substance abuse. “Ending prohibition does not necessitate the creation of an industry to promote increased consumption.”

After hours of testimony and debate, the assembly overwhelmingly voted to kill the measure, with only Demboski and Assembly member Paul Honeman supporting it.

Drafting the regulations around marijuana will take months, and some who supported the ballot campaign think the hardest work is still ahead. In February state legislators will start the year-long process of laying out the specific rules determining permits, taxes, advertisements–all the technical details that come with an industry.

Bruce Schulte is with the Coalition for Responsible Cannabis Legislation, and says after input has been collected from around the state, communities will then have three months to decide whether the commercial regulations fit local needs.

“That three month window is the appropriate and proper time for any community around the state to look at the state-wide rules, consider their own needs and objectives and then make a decision to opt out or apply additional rules and guidelines of their own,” Schulte explained. “Honestly, what makes sense for Anchorage is going to make just as much sense for Fairbanks, for Bethel, for Nome, for Kotz.”]

The vote doesn’t mean Anchorage will automatically opt in to regulations once they are done, only that a “wait and see” approach will unfold over a longer timeline.

Categories: Alaska News

President Obama Makes Bristol Bay Off-Limits For Oil, Gas Development

Tue, 2014-12-16 17:09

President Obama today extended an executive action that puts Bristol Bay off-limits to oil and gas development. 

“Under the authority granted to me under the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act,” he said. “This withdrawal prevents consideration of this area for any oil or gas leasing for purposes of exploration, development or production.”

The president’s announcement is being celebrated in Dillingham.

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Categories: Alaska News

State Hires Project Lead for Medicaid Expansion

Tue, 2014-12-16 17:08

The Department of Health and Social Services has created a new position to help the state work toward the goal of expanding Medicaid.

The job is “Medicaid expansion project director” and it’s being filled by Chris Ashenbrenner, who spent two decades working for the department and came out of retirement to take on this challenge.

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Ashenbrenner has been on the job only a few weeks, but her desk in Juneau is already covered with post-it note reminders and piles of paper. Those piles will help Ashenbrenner with the challenging task of coordinating the state’s plan for expanding Medicaid.

Ashenbrenner has a lot of experience with federal health policy in Alaska. She was director of the division of public assistance when she retired in 2009 and helped carry out welfare reform and start Alaska’s Denali KidCare program- the Medicaid program for kids.

She says helping the state expand Medicaid is the only job she can imagine coming out of retirement for:

“I saw such great need for people to get healthy,” Ashenbrenner said. ”Be able to get health services and be healthy in order to really lead them to be able to support themselves and their families. It’s such a barrier.”

Ashenbrenner hopes the state can expand Medicaid next summer.  But a lot has to happen to make it work. Ashenbrenner has to identify costs, make sure the right systems are in place and work with the community and lawmakers to come up with a plan that will work for Alaska.

She recognizes the plunging price of oil and the state’s growing budget deficit could stymie Medicaid expansion. But she’s confident Alaska can come up with a proposal that offsets any costs of the program. She says Alaska has the advantage of building off the experience of other states like Wyoming and Utah:

“Both of those states have said they can do expansion without spending any new money and that’s the kind of plan we’re looking toward being able to develop,” Ashenbrenner said.

The department faces a big technical hurdle before Medicaid expansion can work. The systems for Medicaid enrollment and payment aren’t functioning properly. But Ashenbrenner thinks those problems can be resolved by the summer.

The federal government is offering a team of people to help Alaska work through any challenges. And within the state, Ashenbrenner says there’s an encouraging amount of enthusiasm and support:

“From community groups, from people inside the department, people inside the department, really excited about the possibility of getting this up and going and so that feels really good,” she said.

Ashenbrenner’s position is a temporary one. She’ll resume her retirement when expansion is complete. At first she was hopeful that would be in time for king salmon fishing. Now, she thinks moose hunting season is more realistic.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Categories: Alaska News

North Slope-Bound Tanker Wrecks, Spills 1,200 Gallons of Diesel, Catches Fire

Tue, 2014-12-16 17:07

A fuel tanker headed to the North Slope wrecked at a remote spot along the Dalton Highway Sunday and overturned, spilling 1,200 gallons of diesel. The wrecked rig later caught fire and burned up.

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The tanker owned by Fairbanks-based Big State Logistics was headed to a customer on the North Slope Sunday when it slid off the road around milepost 189 of the Dalton, near Wisemen, and overturned around 8:15 p.m.

The fire that burned the wrecked tanker lights up the night. The rig caught fire after Big State Logistics removed the remaining 9,000 gallons of fuel from it.
(Credit Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities)

The state Department of Environmental Conservation issued a news release Monday afternoon stating that the cause of the wreck was unknown and under investigation by the state Transportation Department. And that the driver was taken to Fairbanks Memorial Hospital, where he was treated and released.

Ashley Adamczak, an environmental specialist with the Fairbanks DEC office, says the tanker’s rear compartment ruptured and spilled about 1,200 gallons of diesel.

Big State Logistics sent personnel Sunday night to recover about 9,000 gallons that was still in the wrecked tanker. That was pumped into another tanker and sent on its way to the North Slope.

Adamczak says at some point after the fuel was removed, the wrecked tractor-trailer caught fire.

“The cause of the fire is still under investigation,” she said.

Adamczak says investigators with DEC were unable to survey the spill Monday, because of the fire.

“Due to the fact that the fire was still burning, we haven’t been able to get in too close and take a look at it.”

Adamczak couldn’t confirm Monday afternoon whether it had been extinguished.

She says investigators hope to get back into the area soon to survey the spill.

“One of the first priorities will be delineating the area of contamination, which means basically checking the soil for petroleum and seeing how much of an impacted area we have.”

Adamczak says DEC also will have a better estimate on how much of the ultralow-sulfur diesel was spilled once the tanker carrying the remaining load gets to its customer.

Categories: Alaska News

Juneau School Board to Decide if Montessori Borealis Should be its Own School

Tue, 2014-12-16 17:05

Montessori Borealis teacher Cory Crossett explains how the bead chain cabinet shows mathematical concepts in physical form rather than on a piece of paper. (Photo by Lisa Phu/KTOO)

Montessori Borealis has been part of the Juneau School District for 20 years as an optional program. After a couple years of planning, the Montessori Borealis community submitted a proposal last spring to become its own school.

The school board will decide tonight.

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Part of the Montessori Borealis school day includes a 3-hour block of time where the student decides what to learn. Montessori Borealis teacher Cory Crossett reads off a student’s work plan.

“He’s going to go on to do some long multiplication. After that he’s going to do some language work and write a poem and parse it, which means to break out the different parts of speech and symbolize those, ” he says. “It looks like it’s on to writing a final draft on his research on Ancient India.”

The plan has to be approved by the teacher.

“And so he’s going to work through this at his own pace and the idea, just like it is when you’re an adult, is to make a plan and successfully complete that plan and, you know, sometimes you’re going to pull it off and other times you’re not, but you’re going to learn how to self-regulate,” Crossett says.

Montessori education is based on multi-age classrooms. Borealis has two lowerelementary classrooms of first through third graders, and two upper elementary classes of fourth through sixth. Its adolescent program is made up of grades seven and eight. Total enrollment is about 140 students and their classrooms are in the Marie Drake Building.

Crossett says mixed grades means maintaining a consistent classroom culture.

“When I get new fourth graders, the older kids help them orient to the systems and the older kids have an investment in the systems running the right way. It essentially means that you are no longer the only teacher in the room. You may be the only adult there, but the kids learn how to help each other and to rely on each other in that way and it creates a really powerful sense of community,” Crossett says.

Montessori was developed in 1907 by Dr. Maria Montessori, a developmental psychologist from Italy. The Montessori education model begins at age 3. If Borealis becomes its own school, adding a preschool and kindergarten is part of the plan.

“We’d love to be able to say we offer a full Montessori program from age 3 through middle school with fidelity, so we’re doing a program really more as it’s supposed to be done,” says Montessori Borealis Principal Kristin Garot.

The district would charge tuition for preschool; kindergarten would be free.

Expansion would also add a third lower elementary classroom and eventually a third upper elementary classroom, guaranteeing enough students to support its middle school program.

Garot says becoming its own school would make Montessori Borealis more prominent as a public school option for parents.

“When they reach out to different schools we sometimes get left aside because they don’t realize where we are or that we’re here, and so I think having our separate school designation will make it really clear,” Garot says.

If Borealis becomes its own school and maintains a minimum enrollment of 176, it could receivemore than $800,000 a year from the state and the city, according to the district. Preschool tuition could add another $100,000. These funds would cover costs and produce a surplus for other district needs.

Montessori Borealis isn’t the only Montessori program in the community. Juneau Montessori has been around for almost 30 years. The private nonprofit in Douglas offers toddler, preschool and kindergarten programs. Parents who want Montessori educated children often start them out at Juneau Montessori and then enter the Montessori Borealis placement process for first grade.

Juneau Montessori Executive Director Sharlyn Smith is excited about the prospect of having more Montessori education in Juneau, but she’s worried as well. If Borealis becomes its own school with a kindergarten, it may draw those children away from Juneau Montessori.

“If we have children that’ve been here for four years that suddenly all leave to try to get into the Borealis program, that’s a big hit on your program because those are your experienced children and then the level of functioning in your classrooms really goes down,” Smith says.

Juneau Montessori has about 60 students, including toddlers as young as 15 months. Smith says families often pay for their children to go through the whole program, including kindergarten, to maintain the community and learning style.

“But if you could have this education for free, people might try to do that, just because it’s good for their family and, of course, they should do what’s good for their family, right?” Smith says.

Tuition at Juneau Montessori is around $900 a month. Preschool tuition at Borealis could be roughly the same. That detail, among others, will be worked out if Montessori Borealis becomes its own school.

Categories: Alaska News

Troopers Release Names of Missing Kuskokwim Travelers

Tue, 2014-12-16 17:04

Search and rescue crews used chainsaws to cut the ice open during their search. (Photo courtesy of BSAR)

Alaska State Troopers have released the names of the two other travelers that remain missing on the frozen Kuskokwim River.

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Twenty-six-year-old George Evan, and 27-year-old Sally Stone, both of Akiak are feared dead after the ATV they were riding slipped into a hole on the frozen river.

Fifty-one-year-old Ralph ‘Jimmy’ Demantle, also of Akiak, is also believed to have been riding the ATV. His body was recovered from the ice hole near Kwethluk Sunday.

Megan Peters is a spokesperson for the Alaska State Troopers.

“There were two adult males and one adult female. They were supposed to be traveling from Bethel to Akiak via four-wheeler and they just hadn’t shown up. When the search and rescue group went to see if they could find any signs of them, essentially they were able to find a single set of ATV tracks going into an open lead. A machine was recovered and also the body of Ralph Demantle has been recovered from the water and search and recovery efforts are continuing for the other two,” said Peters.

The missing travelers were reported to troopers at around 5:00 p.m. Friday. They were last seen in the Kwethluk area Thursday night. Bethel Search and Rescue says the three were traveling at night in snowy weather.

On Saturday searchers and State Trooper Air Assets began a search and found an open hole above Kwethluk with a single set of ATV tracks leading into it.

Troopers say alcohol is believed to be a factor in the incident.  The search for Evan and Stone continues.

Categories: Alaska News

Alaska Power Company Customers Will See 11 Percent Rate Hike

Tue, 2014-12-16 17:03

Thousands of rural Alaskans will see their power bills go up after the first of the year. That’s because the Regulatory Commission of Alaska, or RCA, approved an 11 percent rate increase last week for Alaska Power Company customers.

That’s lower than the hike the company asked for. But it’s still more than many residents in Southeast and the Interior say they can afford.

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Categories: Alaska News

Are Agencies Prepared for Effects of Climate Change?

Tue, 2014-12-16 17:02

As Alaskans grapple with the effects of a warming planet, they look to federal and state agencies to help with problems that are too big for an individual or even a community to tackle. But it’s not clear if statutes and regulations, and agency fundingare up to the task.

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Dozens of agencies are working with communities trying to recover from disasters,rebuild infrastructureprotect against further damage, or relocate. But James Blowe, of Alukanuk, says agency funds often come with impractical or counterproductive requirements, and it can be hard to reach people.

“Getting people to talk with you is almost impossible,” said Blowe. “They either, ‘You gotta talk to this person,’ or ‘We don’t know what we should do,’ or ‘You need to call the Corps of Engineers,’ and they said’s it’s out of their hands. It’s just a big runaround.”

Civil Project Management Chief Bruce Sexauer, in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Alaska office, says the Corps does have to work within certain limits – such as funding levels set by Congress. It has to evaluate projects to see that costs don’t exceed benefits. And it requires matching funding.

“A local community still needs to supply 35% of the cost,” said Sexauer. “So a $10 million project, that’s a significantly large project for a small community to be able to handle.”

Eugene Asicksick is the former mayor and current vice-mayor of Shaktoolik, a village of 230 people who live on a spit with Norton Sound on one side and the Shaktoolik River on the other. He says over the years, federal and state agencies provided studies with valuable information, and funds for some projects but not enough money for the big steps that seemed necessary. Asicksick says as the years passed, storms worsened and eventually one hurled drift logs too close to peoples’ homes.

“We encountered storms in 2009, 2011, and 2013,” said Asicksick. “And 2013’s storm was the first time the driftwood has crested over to where the houses were built.”

Terry Johnson, a Marine Advisory Program agent with the University of Alaska, says he and consultant Glenn Gray began working with Shaktoolik in 2011 to develop a climate change adaptation strategy. Johnson says the village had formed a committee with two representatives each of the tribe, the city, and the village corporation, and held open meetings during the planning process. He says community priorities were clear:  to save lives in the event of inundation, and to protect property such as water storage and fuel tanks.

“What we did is listen to what the committee told us, and then we set out to find information that would help them decide what the best approaches were,” said Johnson. “And we kind of packaged that information. And we drafted what we called a decision document, which was really just a set of descriptions of the problem, descriptions of potential solutions to the problem, and then a set of questions, ‘do you want to take this approach, yes or no.’”

Asicksick says village leaders came to a decision. “We decided after several planning,” said Asicksick. “There was talks of evacuation, evacuation building, relocating, that all of them were pretty much cost-prohibitive because of the cost-benefit ratio requirement to get any federal dollars.”

Asicksick says the village received $620,000 from the Norton Sound Economic Development Corp. And the local tribe, city, and village corporation pitched in with fuel, heavy equipment, and gravel to forge ahead with a project to protect themselves.

Now we have a berm about a mile and a half long in front of the village and the gravel berm is about 8 to 10 feet high in places and 10 to 12 feet wide,” said Asicksick.

Asicksick says when it can afford to, the village will plant vegetation on the berm to strengthen it, and will soon be working with agencies to restore an area where erosion has brought the sea to within a hundred feet of the runway.

Categories: Alaska News

Alaska News Nightly: December 16, 2014

Tue, 2014-12-16 17:01

Stories are posted on the APRN news page. You can subscribe to APRN’s newsfeeds via emailpodcast and RSS. Follow us on Facebook at alaskapublic.org and on Twitter @aprn.

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President Obama Makes Bristol Bay Off-Limits For Oil, Gas Development

Liz Ruskin, APRN – Washington DC

President Obama today extended an executive action that puts Bristol Bay off-limits to oil and gas development.

State Hires Project Lead for Medicaid Expansion

Annie Feidt, APRN – Anchorage

The department of health and social services has created a new position to help the state work toward the goal of expanding Medicaid.  The job is Medicaid Expansion Project Director and it’s being filled by Chris Ashenbrenner, who spent two decades working for the department and came out of retirement to take on this challenge.

North Slope-Bound Tanker Wrecks, Spills 1,200 Gallons of Diesel, Catches Fire

Tim Ellis, KUAC – Fairbanks

A fuel tanker headed to the North Slope wrecked at a remote spot along the Dalton Highway Sunday, overturning and spilling more than a thousand gallons of diesel. The truck subsequently caught fire and burned.

Anchorage School Board Puts Money into Savings, Rilke Schule Facility

Anne Hillman, KSKA – Anchorage

The Anchorage School Board decided how to spend their unexpected $24 million fund balance during a lengthy Monday night meeting. Most will be saved to make up for next year’s anticipated deficit. The money was originally budgeted for this year, but the district spent less than planned on salaries because they had difficulty hiring and retaining highly experienced teachers.

Juneau School Board to Decide if Montessori Borealis Should be its Own School

Lisa Phu, KTOO – Juneau

Montessori Borealis has been part of the Juneau School District for 20 years as an optional program.

After a couple years of planning, the Montessori Borealis community submitted a proposal last spring to become its own school. The school board will decide tonight.

Troopers Release Names of Missing Kuskokwim Travelers

Daysha Eaton, KYUK – Bethel

Alaska State Troopers have released the names of the two other travelers that remain missing on the frozen Kuskokwim River.

Alaska Power Company Customers Will See 11 Percent Rate Hike

Margaret Friedenauer, KHNS – Haines

Thousands of rural Alaskans will see their power bills go up after the first of the year. That’s because the Regulatory Commission of Alaska, or RCA, approved an 11 percent rate increase last week for Alaska Power Company customers.

That’s lower than the hike the company asked for. But it’s still more than many residents in Southeast and the Interior say they can afford.

Are Agencies Prepared for Effects of Climate Change?

Joaqlin Estus, KNBA – Anchorage

As Alaskans grapple with the effects of a warming planet, they look to federal and state agencies to help with problems that are too big for an individual or even a community to tackle. But it’s not clear if statutes, regulations and agency funding are up to the task.

Categories: Alaska News

Girl Scouts of America And The Digital Cookie Program

Tue, 2014-12-16 17:00

Today we’re trying to sell cookies online. Last week the Girl Scouts of America announced that in 2015 they will introduce the Digital Cookie program. The program will allow Girl Scouts to sell their cookies online. The only problem? Alaska won’t be participating.

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“Everybody else is getting charged normal rates, except Alaska and Hawaii,” Sue Perles, CEO of Girl Scouts Alaska, said. “We’re getting charged a $20 fee per order.”

She’s referring to the $20 flat rat that would have been applied to all Alaska orders. That means if an Alaskan Girl Scout were to sell a box of cookies to a friend online, it would cost the usual shipping rate, plus a $20 fee. That single box of thin mints could end up costing more than $30. While Alaskans are no strangers to higher shipping costs, Perles says we have our limits.

“We’ve already had discussions with the appropriate people at the National Headquarters of Girl Scouts about signing a different kind of contract next year,” Perles said. “And they’ve assured us they will work hard to do that because they want all girls to have the opportunity to participate in Digital Cookie.”

Alaskans buy about 650,000 boxes of Girl Scout cookies each year, and Perles is confident those sales will see a healthy increase once rural troops have the ability to sell online.

“We have troops selling in Unalaska, Dutch Harbor; we have troops in Bethel and Cake. We have troops in communities large and small,” she said.

Perles also points out that a large number of Girl Scouts come from military families.

“And they have friends and relatives all over the world, and Digital Cookie will be an enormous tool for those girls,” Perles said.

With more kids becoming tech-savy every year, Perles is sure that the program will eventually be a key addition to the Alaskan scouts.

“We want our girls to be ahead of the curve and to really learn how to apply their Digital knowledge to a business situation,” Perles said. “And they will at some point learn that through Digital Cookie.”

Although we’ll have to wait at least a year to order our cookies online, Perles says Alaskans will at least be able to sample the two new cookie flavors coming out in January; Rah-Rah Raisin, and the group’s first ever gluten-free cookie Toffe-tastic.

Categories: Alaska News

Indie Alaska: I Am The Gingerbread Village Builder

Tue, 2014-12-16 10:15

850 pounds of icing, 40 houses of gingerbread and chocolate – Joe Hickel has been creating Marina’s Village in the lobby of The Hotel Captain Cook for 35 years. Last year’s creation took six days to build and features a new country scene.

Categories: Alaska News

Anchorage School Board puts money into savings, Rilke Schule facility

Tue, 2014-12-16 08:35

The Anchorage School Board decided how to spend their unexpected fund balance during a lengthy Monday night meeting. Most will be saved to make up for next year’s anticipated deficit. Some charter schools will also get some help.

The board is putting aside $17 million to soften the anticipated budget deficit for the 2015-2016 school year. ASD CFO Mark Foster said during a work session that this will mean the district should not have to lay off any teachers or instruction support staff next year. Superintendent Ed Graff told the board the money will help teacher and student morale so they can focus on the classroom.

“We are trying to make sure that we do what’s right by not having to go through this churning of staff and employees and decision-making unnecessarily.”

The board also narrowly voted in favor of advancing $2 million to the German-immersion charter school for building a new facility. Some board members questioned the merits of using a large chunk of money to help a small percentage of ASD students. Others wondered about the school’s financial transparency and the apparent opposition within the school community to the building project.

Senator Bettye Davis voted against giving Rilke Schule the money in this fiscal climate, though she does support the school.

“At this point I can’t see me even making a loan just to give this particular charter just to build a building when they can’t agree if they need it or not.”

The board set aside another $1 million for a charter school facility fund that will sunset in 2016.

That left nearly $4 million to use during the second semester of this year. The district will spend more money toward hiring teacher’s assistants, paying substitute teachers more, and providing summer school. They will also try to recruit more special ed teachers. Graff says these measures will help with classroom crowding.

Categories: Alaska News

Walker Submits Skeletal Capital Budget

Mon, 2014-12-15 19:55

By law, Alaska’s governor is required submit a budget by December 15. Having been in office for only two weeks, Gov. Bill Walker opted to submit his predecessor’s $5.2 billion operating budget on Monday, without endorsement. But he did make some changes to former Gov. Sean Parnell’s capital budget. APRN’s Alexandra Gutierrez reports.

The capital budget Gov. Sean Parnell was working on was already slim. At $200 million in state spending, it was a fraction of the $1 billion and $2 billion appropriations Parnell authorized early in his administration, when oil prices were high and the state treasury was flush.

With oil prices now crashing, Gov. Bill Walker has halved Parnell’s proposal to $106 million in unrestricted general fund spending — the money that legislators can appropriate with no strings attached.

“This is ground zero on the capital budget,” says Pat Pitney, the new director of the Office of Management and Budget.

The capital budget submitted on Monday is largely made up of items that come with federal grant money. Only a few items — a couple of water treatment plants, a sewage project, a school project in Kivalina that the state is legally mandated to complete because of a lawsuit over rural education disparities — have no federal funding attached.

“This is an unendorsed budget,” says Pitney. “We haven’t had time to evaluate all of the projects. We did know we want to keep the transportation funds and those projects that rely heavily on matched funding.”

According to the new capital budget, the state will seek $1.2 billion in federal grants, mostly for airport and road improvements.

Not everything with matching federal funds survived the new budget. A half-million dollars for maintenance on shooting ranges was slashed, even though it was mostly federally funded. Walker’s budget also cuts funding for megaprojects like the Susitna-Watana dam and a 200-mile road to the Ambler mining district — megaprojects that have received considerable design and development money in the past. A line for the Knik Arm crossing was also zeroed out, even though Parnell’s budget only included federal funding for the proposed billion-dollar bridge. Pitney says that’s because in the long run, it is a “major, major commitment.”

“It’s one of the large projects the transition has to take a harder look at,” says Pitney.

The Walker administration will review that project, and others, between now and the legislative session to see if they should be put back in. The governor has until February 18 to make changes to his budget.

But Pitney’s not expecting a lot of projects to get added. She says that any extra items should neutralize the revenue spent on them in some way.

“Are there things now that if you invest in can either return revenue or reduce costs in the future?” Pitney asks.

Spending on a pipeline to get the state’s natural gas reserves to market could fall into that category.

After the governor’s budget is submitted, it gets sent to the Legislature, where lawmakers can add in their own budget priorities. Last year, Parnell’s original budget proposal included $430 million in state spending, but the final budget grew to nearly $600 million.

Pitney says there isn’t a hard cap for legislators to keep in mind when it comes to infrastructure spending this year.

Rep. Steve Thompson, co-chair of the House Finance Committee, is also undecided on a target spending number. But the Fairbanks Republican expects appropriations to be substantially reduced from previous years, with critical projects for health and safety getting the most consideration.

“I don’t think people are going to be wanting to flex their muscles too much with the financial situation the state is in,” says Thompson.

Thompson adds that he wasn’t surprised to see the capital budget stripped mostly to projects with matching funds.

“I didn’t think there was going to be anything other than possibly federal grant match money,” says Thompson. “I’ve been warning people that’s what it was starting to look like prior to this coming out.”

Thompson adds that operating expenditures, now budgeted at $5.2 billion, pose an even greater challenge to lawmakers.

With North Slope crude now below $60 per barrel, lawmakers may have to draw nearly $7 billion in savings to pay for the budget that passed this year, along with the new one they will be drafting. If no changes are made to the spending plan submitted Monday, the Department of Revenue expects the state to run a $3.2 billion deficit.

Categories: Alaska News

Alaska News Nightly: December 15, 2014

Mon, 2014-12-15 17:39

Stories are posted on the APRN news page. You can subscribe to APRN’s newsfeeds via emailpodcast and RSS. Follow us on Facebook at alaskapublic.org and on Twitter @aprn.

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Gov. Walker Submits Capital Budget

Alexandra Gutierrez, APRN – Juneau

By law, Alaska’s governor is required submit a budget by December 15. Having been in office for only two weeks, Gov. Bill Walker elected to submit his predecessor’s operating budget Monday, without endorsement. But he did make some changes to former Gov. Sean Parnell’s capital budget.

Sullivan Delighted with U.S. Senate Committee Assignments

Liz Ruskin, APRN – Washington DC

The Republicans in the U.S. Senate on Monday announced their committee assignments for the next two years. Alaska’s Dan Sullivan will come in with the lowest seniority of the 100 senators, primarily because he’s never held elected office before. But it doesn’t seem to have hurt him on the committee score.

Ballot Measure to Combat Corruption Has A Year To Gather 30,000 Signatures

Zachariah Hughes, KSKA – Anchorage

While election season may have just ended, there’s already a push to gather signatures for a new ballot measure in 2016.

UA President Announces Retirement Date

Dan Bross, KUAC – Fairbanks

University of Alaska President Pat Gamble will step down at the end of the school year. Vice President of University relations, Carla Beam says Gamble announced his plan to retire on June 1st 2015, to UA Regents, during an executive session Friday.

EPA To Use North Pole Air Data

Dan Bross, KUAC – Fairbanks

The Fairbanks area continues to struggle with fine particulate pollution from wood smoke and other sources. Wintertime air inversions trap emissions at ground level, dropping air quality below federal Clean Air Act standards. Much of the North Star Borough is classified a federal non-attainment area by the Environmental Protection Agency, based on air quality monitoring in Fairbanks. But, the EPA plans to begin using monitoring data from North Pole, where pollution is typically much worse.

Bethel Winter House Reopens with New Rules

Daysha Eaton, KYUK – Bethel

After a bumpy start, Bethel Winter House has opened its doors, once again, with new rules. That’s after a newly hired volunteer coordinator quit and organizers shut the homeless shelter down for three nights.

Akeela House Celebrates 40 Years of Successful Sobriety Treatments

Anne Hillman, KSKA – Anchorage

The Akeela House in Anchorage turned 40 this year. It’s one of Anchorage’s oldest substance use treatment facilities. Now it has programs in communities and prisons across the state.

Friends, Family Mourn Avalanche Victim; Expert Advises Recovery Operation Delay

Tim Ellis, KUAC – Fairbanks

Memorial services were held over the weekend for Erik Petersen, the Delta Junction man killed in an avalanche in the Alaska Range.

An avalanche expert who’s surveyed the area of the eastern Alaska Range where the deadly slide came down says the snow pack on mountainsides near Rainbow Ridge remains unstable. That’s delayed efforts to recover Petersen’s body.

Climate Change And Alaska Natives: Health

Joaqlin Estus, KNBA – Anchorage

Alaskans have heard a lot about the effects climate change has had on land in the state. But new studies suggest it’s also having a big impact on the health of residents.

Categories: Alaska News

UA President Announces Retirement Date

Mon, 2014-12-15 17:04

University of Alaska President Pat Gamble will step down at the end school year. Vice President of University relations, Carla Beam says Gamble announced his plan to retire June 1st 2015, to UA Regents, during an executive session Friday.

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Categories: Alaska News

EPA To Use North Pole Air Data

Mon, 2014-12-15 17:03

The Fairbanks area continues to struggle with fine particulate pollution from wood smoke and other sources. Wintertime air inversions trap emissions at ground level, dropping air quality below federal Clean Air Act standards. Much of the North Star Borough is classified a federal non-attainment area by the Environmental Protection Agency, based on air quality monitoring in Fairbanks, but the EPA plans to begin using monitoring data from North Pole, where pollution is typically much worse.

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Categories: Alaska News

Friends, Family Mourn Avalanche Victim; Expert Advises Recovery Operation Delay

Mon, 2014-12-15 17:01

Memorial services were held over the weekend for the Delta Junction man killed in a avalanche in the Alaska Range.  Friends and family gathered to remember 35-year-old Erik Petersen, who was skiing with friend Michael Hopper when the slide came down Dec. 6th.

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Hopper survived the slide, and he and his wife Annie hosted a memorial service for Petersen at their lodge at Black Rapids Saturday.  Another service for Petersen was held in Anchorage yesterday.

Meanwhile, an avalanche expert who’s surveyed the area of the eastern Alaska Range where the deadly slide came down says the snowpack on mountainsides near Rainbow Ridge remains unstable. That will delay any operation to recover Petersen’s body.

Sarah Carter with the Alaska Avalanche Information Center Carter says a 600-by-150-foot expanse of snow engulfed skiers Erik Peterson and Mike Hopper, and his dog, carrying them all about a third of a mile down the mountain.

“As it moved downslope, it was funneled into a steep creek drainage,” she said. “And so it piled up quite a bit deeper, down in the steep creek.

Carter surveyed the slide area around Rainbow Ridge from the air and on the ground in the days after the December 6th incident, to better gauge the scale of the avalanche that slammed into the two backcountry skiers.

“It did release quite high on the slope. They triggered it from lower down” she said. “They were maybe a third of the way up the slope, or so, and the avalanche fracture line, where it actually detached from the mountainside, was way up near the ridge, almost 500, 600 feet above them.”

Carter says this season’s unusual weather has made the area’s snowpack unstable and susceptible to avalanches. The first significant snowfall came in early December, and that formed into a crust or, as she calls it, a “wind slab” on top of an unusually unstable base layer. All of which came crashing down on the skiers.

“And that’s ultimately what was triggered by Erik and Michael,” she said.

Carter says those dangerous conditions still exist in the eastern Alaska Range.

“It takes time for the snowpack to change,” she said. “And this particular set-up could last weeks, or months.”

She says that makes it unwise to attempt a body recovery operation now.

Carter is the education-outreach coordinator for the Alaska Avalanche Information Center. And she’s also the forecaster for the Valdez Avalanche Center. She says she believes climate change is a major factor in the unusual weather of recent years, and that it contributes to greater avalanche potential.

“A lot warmer weather. More moisture. That does affect avalanches, and creates larges avalanche events. And having a few of those within just a few years kind of gives us a heads-up that maybe we might be dealing with this more and more.”

That can make it hard for those who traverse the back country to predict and prepare for the conditions they’ll encounter. Carter says that’s compounded by a lack of real-time data for snow and weather conditions on the Alaska Range, compared to the extensive state and federal data-collection sources for the area south of Anchorage, around Alyeska ski resort.

“There’s not a forecast center that is responsible for the Alaska Range,” she said. “So it is a data-sparse area.”

Carter says aside from the sometimes-sporadic information from a few weather stations along the Alaska Range, outdoor recreationalists and others don’t have a lot of data about conditions there.

She says the Alaska Avalanche Information Center website has a page for those who want to share their observations about conditions in the area.

She says that’s essential information, and she encourages anyone who’s out and about along the Alaska Range to post their observations.

“Even if it was just a photo, or a brief couple of sentences saying where they were and what they saw. If they saw avalanche activity, that’s bulls-eye information that other users can utilize and say ‘Well, maybe that might not a great place to head to right now.’ ”

Carter says center official hopes to expand that and other information resources in the future.

Categories: Alaska News

Climate Change And Alaska Natives: Health

Mon, 2014-12-15 17:00

Alaskans have heard a lot about the effects climate change has had on land in the state, but new studies suggest it’s also having a big impact on the health of residents.

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Categories: Alaska News

Sullivan Delighted with U.S. Senate Committee Assignments

Mon, 2014-12-15 16:17

The Republicans in the U.S. Senate today announced their committee assignments for the next two years. Alaska’s Dan Sullivan will come in with the lowest seniority of the 100 senators, primarily because he’s never held elected office before. But it doesn’t seem to have hurt him on the committee score.

Sullivan will serve on Armed Services, Veterans Affairs, Commerce, and Environment & Public Works, and he says he can hardly pick a favorite.

“Well look, I’m pleased with all of them,” he said. “These were actually the four committees that I requested.”

It’s through committees that senators can shape legislation, and their assignments define their sphere of influence. The Commerce Committee is of particular interest to Alaska because it oversees fisheries, as well as the Coast Guard and civil aviation. Alaska’s Ted Stevens chaired the panel near the end of his career. Sullivan says Environment and Public Works Committee doesn’t get as much attention.

“But over the course of the last several months I said that was a committee I’d be very interested in, just because of the oversight role it has with regard to certain federal agencies, particularly the EPA,” he said.

Sullivan, like other Republicans, made fighting the EPA a pillar of his campaign.

It should be an interesting time for the EPW committee. Its incoming chairman, Oklahoma Republican Jim Inhofe, believes man-made global warming is a hoax. The committee is also responsible for writing the multi-year transportation bill.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski becomes the chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources in the new Congress. She’ll also keep her other three assignments: Appropriations, Indian Affairs and the so-called HELP Committee — Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. Murkowski says Sullivan’s committee list is a good counterpart to hers.

“Between what he has been assigned and I have retained, I think we cover everything across the state. I think it’s a great, great pairing,” she said.

Sullivan will be sworn in Jan. 6. Until then, Mark Begich remains in office, and he’s in the Capitol longer than expected while the Senate tries to wrap up for the year.

Categories: Alaska News

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