ASD seeking information about closing Gruening

Idea resurfaces to turn ERHS into middle school
Wednesday, December 16, 2015 - 10:34
  • Gruening Middle School was named for Ernest Gruening, the man known as the “Father of Alaska Statehood.” Gruening was born in New York City, served in the U.S. Army in World War I and was was appointed territorial governor of Alaska by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, a position in which he served until 1953. The school named after him was opened in 1984 after a one-year delay caused by a design flaw. The aging building needs extensive remodeling and Anchorage School District officials have opted to further study options for the school. Photo by Amy Armstrong for the Star

It’s an idea that has been bandied about before as the Anchorage School District deals with pending budget cuts: Close Gruening Middle School, move the middle school students to what is currently Eagle River High School, return the Fort Richardson high school population to Bartlett High School and the students living in Eagle River proper back to Chugiak High School.

CHS, according to district numbers, is only 56 percent full. In 2014, district numbers crunchers considered the idea, but no action was taken.

It recently raised its community-splitting head again as Eric Croft, ASD school board member, made a rather public Request for Information, or RFI, at the board’s Dec. 3 meeting naming three schools – GMS included – asking what the financial ramifications of closure would be.

Croft’s move also included the successful removal of remodeling funding for GMS from the 2016-17 bonds package proposal sent to the Anchorage Assembly.

Croft defended both moves, stating, “This gives us time for a public discussion about whether the community wants to rebuild schools when they age out or have the pain of closing them down and the boundary changes that come with that.”

What it has done in the Chugiak-Eagle River area is stir up strong emotions regarding the aging middle school and the nearly-decade long battle by a committed group of long-time locals to get ERHS built to ease the then-overcrowding at CHS.

It has also put the principals for GMS and ERHS — Bobby Jefts and Martin Lang — on high alert once again answering questions and calming concerns from community members and parents.

Lang was front and center for the Dec. 3 school board work sessions and meeting making sure school board members and district administrators saw the face of ERHS.

Closing ERHS equals closing the district’s best performing high school, Lang told The Star a few days later.

“Last year we had a 94.5 percent graduation rate,” Lang said. “When AMP (Alaska Measures of Progress) test results were released this fall, we had the highest scores in math of the eight comprehensive high schools in ASD and the second highest scores, just behind South Anchorage High School, for language arts.”

He recognizes that CHS – a school Lang taught at before becoming ERHS principal – is currently nowhere near its capacity. But he cites information also presented by ASD Chief Operating Officer Tom Roth that the three largest remaining tracks of land open for development are in the Eagle River area. 

Lang believes the idea of closing ERHS and transforming the building in to middle school because the current high school population could technically fit at Bartlett and CHS is shortsighted.

World events could bring additional troops and their families to the Fort Richardson side of JBER. Ongoing home construction sprawling out to the Eagle River Valley at the end of Driftwood Bay Drive, the possible development of land owned by the Mental Health Trust Authority and the continual development of Powder Reserve on the northern end of Eagle River — which is in the current CHS attendance boundary — are all issues Lang believes will re-fill CHS and keep ERHS at capacity.

Eric Bushnell, of the Bushnell Real Estate Team in Eagle River, said the last two homes he sold in Powder View, the seventh phase of development in Powder Reserve, were to families with children. One had a high school and elementary age students; the other had preschool age children.

He points out that those children will each feed into respective schools within the district, including CHS. With an average of 15 to 20 new homes being built in the Powder Reserve over the next 10 years, Bushnell believes its school-age residents will re-fill CHS.

He asked, just how full does the community want CHS to be?

“Do they want CHS to be at 100 percent capacity?” Bushnell questions. “100 percent stretches a school an awful lot. If you overcrowd the schools, education suffers. When education suffers, not as many people move to that area because one of the main reasons people move to an area is the quality of the school for their children. If the quality of the school diminishes, people will not move to Eagle River and Eagle River will not grow.”

As a former board member for the Chugiak-Eagle River Chamber of Commerce, Bushnell has heard speculation regarding the closure of aging GMS for years.

He isn’t sure what the answer is and he knows the issue is contentious, but believes the conversation needs to occur.

So does a former school board member who fought hard for the funding and construction of ERHS.

Crystal Kennedy lives in Eagle River. She and husband, Greg, raised their children here. She joined in the fight for ERHS when her youngest child was in elementary school. Her own children never attended ERHS, but Kennedy saw the overcrowding that hallmarked CHS in the early throughout the 2000s and knew something had to change.

She served her terms on the ASD school board but follows district activity just as closely as she did as a board member.

She isn’t sure a remodel of GMS is the best use of taxpayer dollars at a time when state budgets are straining from sustained low oil prices and an increase in current prices is nowhere in sight.

“Ten years ago when ERHS was built, we had no idea we would be in this situation today,” Kennedy said.

That is not to say that she is in favor of the potential proposal wrapped up in Croft’s RFI which at this point is only a request and nowhere near becoming a school board agenda item. But she does believe it is time for the community to objectively assess the future of the GMS building in terms of best economic policy.

“Gruening has been such a great school in spite of all of it shortcomings as a facility because of the staff there that make it work for the students that attend that school,” she said.

Its principal does not want to see its doors closed.

“I certainly would rather see this building remodeled than it be closed down,” Jefts said. “There is a sense of community here at Gruening that is a major part of Eagle River and much tradition here that ought to continue.”

Connect with Amy Armstrong via email at amyarmstrong@gci.net or online at www.facebook.com/pages/Armstrong-Communications-Words-by-Amy-Marie.

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