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Alaska Women’s Hall of Fame: Beverly D. Dunham

Alaska and Yukon Headlines - Tue, 2014-04-08 18:00

Beverly, “Bev”, Dunham is a pioneer in Alaska journalism and a tireless community advocate. She is described as being ahead of her time and a strong role model to many women and young girls growing up in Alaska.

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Alaska Women’s Hall of Fame: Eleanor Andrews

Alaska and Yukon Headlines - Tue, 2014-04-08 17:58

Eleanor Andrews has been building the human infrastructure capacity of Alaska for nearly five decades. She has been a successful business woman, as the owner of the Andrews Group, and also has been a highly regarded public servant. But it is the effectiveness and sweeping nature of her advocacy on behalf of community that is most amazing. Andrews is most widely known as a “civic entrepreneur” – that is a person who inspires institutions, businesses and individuals to invest in the community at the same time that they being successful at their work.

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Alaska Dispatch To Buy Anchorage Daily News

Alaska and Yukon Headlines - Tue, 2014-04-08 17:31

Alaska Dispatch is making an aggressive move to position itself at the forefront of the the state’s media landscape.

It announced Tuesday that it’s buying the Anchorage Daily News – Alaska’s largest newspaper.

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The $34 million dollar deal between Alaska Dispatch Publishing and the California-based McClatchy Company, which currently owns the 68-year-old, Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper, was signed Tuesday morning..

“The whole idea behind this is to develop a much more comprehensive news product than what Alaska Dispatch or the Anchorage Daily News offer now that reaches all of Alaska,” Tony Hopfinger, the executive editor of Alaska Dispatch, said.

Hopfinger says he hasn’t spoken to Anchorage Daily News employees yet, and future changes to the staffing and structure of the company are uncertain.

“We will certainly merge the two companies together and there will be one, combined news operation,” Hopfinger said. “We can say that there will be one news website, but when that’s up and running and happens…I don’t know yet. And the paper will continue 7-days-a-week.”

Hopfinger says with the combined newsrooms, the goal will be for the Dispatch to delve into issues on a broader statewide level.

“That’s the first thing you’ll notice is we’ll have more people and a larger, healthier newsroom and then we’re also looking at trying to eventually get more people positioned in other bureaus around the state,” Hopfinger said.

He says the Dispatch has been looking for ways to improve its product and reach more Alaskans. And after tracking newspaper sales in the Lower 48, the Dispatch reached out to McClatchy in August last year.

“When we saw the Boston Globe and the Washington Post sell, and other newspapers, frankly, last year, it began to occur to us that there might be an opportunity here in Anchorage to combine forces and create a more comprehensive journalism operation,” he said.

The sale is expected to be finalized in early May.

Calls to the Anchorage Daily News were not returned by deadline.

Can an Aggressive Russia Remain Our Nice Arctic Neighbor?

Alaska and Yukon Headlines - Tue, 2014-04-08 17:30

Pro-Russian activists seized public buildings in eastern Ukraine this week, and U.S. officials say they suspect the actions were not spontaneous but engineered by Russia. That, combined with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s recent annexation of Crimea has Arctic experts wondering what this means for international relations in the Arctic and whether the era of cooperation with Russia is over.

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So far, despite occasional fears from the West of a Russian land grab in the Arctic, Russia has behaved as a good neighbor in its dealings with other countries in the Arctic Council. It led the way to treaties on pollution control and search-and-rescue, for instance, in effect pledging its mighty fleet of icebreakers to help its neighbors. But sometimes Russia shows a harsher face. Like in December, when Putin told his top military officers they should pay special attention to building their forces in the Arctic. He told them Russia will be stepping up development in the region and must “have all the levers for the protection of its security and national interests.” This week Putin also instructed his security forces to beef up the Arctic frontier.

 

Russia watchers in Washington say there are signs that, whatever its intentions in Ukraine, Russia might remain a good neighbor in the Arctic. The best sign is the meeting of the Arctic Council late last month in Canada. The Russian delegation came as scheduled, even as Canadian Prime Minister Steven Harper was criticizing Russian aggression in Crimea and demanding Russia’s expulsion from the G8.

Charles Ebinger, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, says his contacts within the U.S. Coast Guard told him last week they were still talking to their counterparts across the Bering Strait.

“I think everybody realizes it’s in our own mutual interests to cooperate and not run the risk of some disastrous sea accident just because of the broader international difficulties,” he said.”

In the big picture, Ebinger says Putin must realize he can’t develop his petroleum assets in the Arctic without the help of American or Western European oil companies. On the other hand, Ebinger says he expects an emboldened Putin will press for territory beyond Ukraine. That, he says, will trigger tougher sanctions against Russia and the spirit of cooperation in the Arctic is likely to be crushed by a grimmer mood in Moscow.

Heather Conley, director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says it’s unclear if cooperation will continue in the Arctic.

“I think right now everyone is walking very carefully,” she said.

Conley says Russia and the other Arctic nations still have a strong interest in maintaining their good working relationships.

“But, I think we do recognize that should the Ukraine crisis escalate I think it’s clear there will be some spillover effect which will impact the Arctic,” she said.

Already, the U.S. and Norway have called off a naval exercise with Russia in the Arctic. That’s outside the realm of the Arctic Council, but such exercises do help the countries develop the integration needed for multinational rescues and pollution control operations as envisioned by the council.

Robert Huebert, associate director of the Center for Military and Strategic Studies  in Calgary, says he expects the Russians to continue to play nice in the Arctic for the time being, either because they still believe in the cooperative alliance, or because they want to make their actions in Crimea look like an isolated incident. Huebert says figuring out Russia’s true motivation is a puzzle for Western nations.

“On the one hand it’s also in their interest to have the Arctic remain outside all of this, but if the Russians have become more assertive, more aggressive, there’s a requirement to stand up to it,” he said.

As Huebert sees it, Russia has touched off a national security chain reaction that is likely to spread north, because Putin’s takeover of Crimea has both Sweden and Finland feeling they might be next. That has revived their interest in joining NATO. If either country becomes a full member, Huebert says Russia would take it as a direct military threat, an attempt by NATO to encircle the Arctic.

“The Russians, since about 2004, 2005, have always listed one of their core security threats … is an expansion of NATO onto its doorsteps,” he said.

Huebert acknowledges his perspective on Russia tends to be darker than most, but he never really believed in Russia the nice Arctic neighbor. Huebert says the Arctic Council experience only proves the countries can cooperate to set up a framework for cooperation.

” I don’t know if you have kids, but it’s always easy to get the kids to agree to all the rules about sharing toys until the actual toy shows up,’ he said.

The real test, Huebert says, comes when the Arctic Council stands between Russia and something it wants.

Why Alaska women earn less and what they can do about it

Alaska and Yukon Headlines - Tue, 2014-04-08 17:29

Engineers make some of the highest salaries in the state, but only 18 percent of them are women. (Photo courtesy of BP p.l.c.)

President Obama signed executive orders on Tuesday that aim to tighten the pay gap between men and women.

The president’s actions took place on National Equal Pay Day, a day symbolizing how long women have to work into 2014 to catch up with what men earned in 2013. The day originated in 1996 to raise public awareness of the wage gap.

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In Alaska, a statute prohibits employers from paying females less than males for the same work. But there’s still a pay gap – for every dollar a man in Alaska earns, a woman earns roughly 67 cents.

State Labor Economist Caroline Schultz says occupation and industry selection is the main reason behind the pay gap.

“Women are never going to earn as much as men if women don’t choose to pursue high paying occupations,” Schultz says.

Engineers make some of the highest salaries in Alaska, but only 18 percent of them are women. They’re making on average $72,000 a year while their male counterparts make close to $96,000.

Supervisors in oil, mining and construction industries also make high salaries. Only 5 percent of them are women, and on average they earn less than half what men make in the same position. These 2012 figures from the Department of Labor represent total annual earnings and don’t distinguish between full- and part-time work.

Schultz says work flexibility is another factor in the gender pay gap. Alaska has a predominance of jobs in natural resources, often in remote work sites.

“That can sometimes be more of a challenge to women, because women traditionally take on a larger burden when it comes to family care. So, you know, if they need to leave early to pick up the kid from school, a woman is more likely to take a flexible job, maybe that pays a little bit less, than a man is,” Schultz says.

What women can do about it

Tamiah Liebersbach is the Women’s Economic Empowerment Center coordinator for YWCA Alaska. She says discrimination is a contributing factor to the pay gap, even if it’s not done on purpose.

“Some sort of idea that maybe a woman isn’t as committed to her career, if she has a family – those kinds of stereotypes do play a role, I think, in not just the wage that a woman gets, but the opportunities that she’s given to build her career,” Liebersbach says.

YWCA Alaska will host a Women’s Economic Empowerment Summit for the first time on May 5, Alaska’s Equal Pay Day. The summit includes a session on the art of negotiation. Wage disparity is also a focus of the Alaska Women’s Summit, established last year after state Sen. Lesil McGuire commissioned a report on the status of women in Alaska.

Barbara Belknap is a Juneau activist working on the issue of equal pay for women. She’s also anAlaska delegate to Vision 2020, a national coalition focused on women’s economic and social equality.

Belknap says negotiating salary is one way for women to take the matter of pay disparity into their own hands.

“Before you go into the interview, understand what the pay scale is for what you’re applying for, know what the going rate is, do some research,” Belknap says.

A couple of years ago, Belknap made a YouTube video demonstrating how to successfully negotiate pay.

Through the video, Belknap is spreading a message she never got. She says it never occurred to her to negotiate salary when she was appointed executive director of Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute in 1997.

“They said, ‘Well, we were paying your predecessor too much money, so your salary is going to be this much money.’ And I remember the little thought bubble in my head going, ‘Oh really, really?’ But I didn’t say anything,” Belknap says.

Belknap received pay increases over time, but says her starting salary was $8,000 less than the starting salary of her male predecessor.

State economist Schultz says whatever the reasons may be for the pay gap, the result is the same – women have less money:

“At the end of the year, at the end of a lifespan, at the end of a career, women have earned less money consistently through 25, 30, 35 years of working. And that really adds up.”

And this fact, Schultz says, leads to other questions.

“What does it mean for Alaska’s economy and what does it mean for women in Alaska, that in general, they have less money than men do? How does it affect their spending? How does it affect child care? How does it affect children?”

Schultz doesn’t know the answers. She also doesn’t know what happens in corporate offices during salary talks, but as an economist, she’ll continue to collect and present the data that could lead to decreasing Alaska’s pay gap.

Amendment To Restructure Judicial Council Stalls Before Vote

Alaska and Yukon Headlines - Tue, 2014-04-08 17:28

A constitutional amendment that would reconfigure a commission tasked with vetting judges was pulled from a vote in the Alaska Senate on Monday and then again on Tuesday after struggling to pick up the necessary support.

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Senate Joint Resolution 21 would make it so that the governor’s public appointees on the Judicial Council would outnumber the attorney members two to one. It would also require the attorney members to go through confirmation by the Legislature. Sen. Pete Kelly, a Fairbanks Republican, has pitched it as a way to add more rural members to the council and increase public oversight of judicial selection.

The Alaska Court System and the Alaska Federation of Natives have come out against the amendment, and Democrats in the minority have argued that the change would allow the Legislature to stack the judiciary. In recent years, the Judicial Council has been a political target for conservative advocacy groups that are unhappy with the way the courts have ruled on abortion cases.

Because SJR 21 would amend the Constitution, it needs approval from two-thirds of the Legislature. Sen. Lesil McGuire, who chairs the Rules Committee tasked with scheduling the measure, says it’s not quite there yet. Enough urban Democrats and moderate Republicans have registered opposition to the amendment to keep it from going through.

“It’s a question about whether the votes are there for sure.”

The measure has been re-scheduled for Wednesday’s calendar to give Kelly the chance to secure another ‘yes’ vote.

This is the second time this session a constitutional amendment was scheduled for a vote in the Senate only to be withdrawn from consideration. The other constitutional measure would have allowed public funds to be spent at private schools, including religious ones.

McGuire says more constitutional amendments have gotten close to passage this year because the Senate is no longer controlled by a bipartisan coalition.

“Most of the things that were on the far right and the far left were kept off the table,” says McGuire. “So the agenda over the past six years was right down the middle of the road for Alaskans. So, what you’re seeing now is a conservative Senate. And as a result of that, you’ve got members that have been waiting to get out of that starting gate with their conservative messages.”

If Kelly’s amendment fails to attract more support, it could be held in the Rules Committee indefinitely.

Any constitutional amendment that passes the Legislature gets put on the ballot for a vote.

This story has been updated to reflect Tuesday’s floor action.

State Reviewing Sulfolane Cleanup Standards

Alaska and Yukon Headlines - Tue, 2014-04-08 17:27

The state will take another look at its cleanup standard for sulfolane contaminated water in North Pole. Last November, the Department of Environmental Conservation set a 14 parts per billion clean up threshold for groundwater tainted by historic spills at the Flint Hills North Pole Refinery.

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Students Compete For Spot In National Geography Bee

Alaska and Yukon Headlines - Tue, 2014-04-08 17:26

Students from across the state competed in the 26th annual Alaska State Geographic Bee last week in hopes of winning a spot in this year’s national competition in Washington D.C. 101 students vied for the spot.

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Media watchers react to Alaska Dispatch's purchase of the Anchorage Daily News

Alaska and Yukon Headlines - Tue, 2014-04-08 17:00
Media watchers react to Alaska Dispatch's purchase of the Anchorage Daily News When an upstart online news operation acquires the larger local newspaper, it sets off an array of reactions -- optimism, hesitancy, promise, fear of pitfalls.April 8, 2014

KPU starts chloramine water disinfection system

Southeast Alaska News - Tue, 2014-04-08 16:58

A listener sent us this shot of water flushing into Hoadley Creek near Tongass Avenue. KPU crews were flushing the water distribution system today as part of the switch to chloramine disinfection.

Ketchikan Public Utilities Water Division started its new water disinfection system Monday night. Water Division Manager John Kleinegger said ammonia was added to the entry point of the 3-million-gallon Bear Valley Reservoir, and the newly treated water has been making its way through.

Kleinegger said they took samples for testing, and he has tasted it, as well.

“I’m certainly pleased to say that the water, to me at least, tastes just about the same as it always has,” he said.

He said chloramine-treated water will first show up in the Bear Valley area, and then will move down Schoenbar Road toward downtown and Tongass Avenue. Some neighborhoods, such as those above Baranof in the Carlanna area, won’t get chloramine-treated water until later in the week, because of the time it takes for water to move through the system.

KPU crews will be flushing water mains to speed up that process. Kleinegger encourages residents to flush their own pipes, as well.

That would be wise,” he said. “Probably the best valve to flush out a person’s service line would be to open the cold-water line on their bathtub.”

He said there can be a stronger chlorine smell when chloraminated water contacts water that has been treated with only chlorine. But, Kleinegger said he hasn’t noticed that.

“Thus far, at least, the water that I’m drinking right now really has no discernable difference,” he said. “I’m very pleased about that.”

Chloramine is a combination of chlorine and a small amount of ammonia. The city has used chlorine alone as the primary disinfectant, but because of high levels of regulated byproducts in Ketchikan’s water, the federal Environmental Protection Agency required the city to make some kind of change.

The city chose chloramine, and has been working toward the new system for about a decade.

There is a citizen effort under way to place a ballot question in front of voters, asking them to prohibit the city from using chloramine. The completed petition is still under review by city officials.

School Board to vote on FY2015 budget

Southeast Alaska News - Tue, 2014-04-08 16:47

The Ketchikan School Board meets Wednesday, and the top item on the agenda is a public hearing and a vote on next year’s budget.

There are several lines segmenting the program-based budget. They indicate different funding levels, and which programs are kept or cut, based on those levels. In his report to the Borough Assembly on Monday, Superintendent Robert Boyle described each line.

“The red line is known-knowns: This year’s allocation of funds and the projected allocation of what the borough suggested,” he said. “From there, we’ve got a thin black line that indicates two things: One that the governor said he thought was appropriate, which is an $85 BSA; and then what the House said, which is $185. But the House is a tricky thing – we still don’t know if that included the $100 million one-time funding associated with the governor’s budget.

“The thick dark line at the bottom indicates where the Senate said they could go, with a $400 increase. We can accomplish everything that we’d like to have done within the district and still create a substantial reserve. We’d like to see that of course, but we’re not holding our breath.”

The BSA, or base-student allocation, is the amount of money the state provides for each student in a school district.

At the level of the thick black line, the district would spend about $32 million, not including grants.

If it passes Wednesday, the School Board will have to vote a second time on the fiscal year 2015 budget before it is officially approved.

The meeting starts at 6 p.m. in Borough Assembly chambers at the White Cliff building. Public comment will be heard at the start and end of the meeting.

Assembly OKs increase to this year’s schools budget

Southeast Alaska News - Tue, 2014-04-08 16:39

Despite misgivings, the Ketchikan Gateway Borough Assembly opted Monday to approve the Ketchikan School District’s spending authority by about $2.4 million.

In his regular education report to the Assembly, Superintendent Robert Boyle addressed the budget debate. He said the entire budget is posted on the district’s website for anyone to look at, and it includes all the details anyone might want.

“The budget is sound, and it is balanced,” he said.

The motion to increase the district’s budget has been postponed twice because of disagreement over an apparent $437,652 disparity between what the district plans to spend and what it expects to receive.

School district officials say there isn’t a disparity. Boyle told the Assembly that the district simply plans to spend less than it could.

“We expect to have our reserve carry forward – it’ll be in the $500,000 range,” he said. “And we will have unspent revenue that’ll be in the $400,000-plus range … that will be allocated for FY15.”

Some on the Assembly weren’t satisfied with Boyle’s explanation. Assembly Member Agnes Moran said it appears that the school district is artificially inflating its budget.

She notes that the district wasn’t able to carry over reserves in the past, and back then, padding the budget was a way for the district to make sure it had money for emergencies.

“I just disagree with having an inflated side of a budget that supposedly has items in there that they have no intention of spending,” she said. “That just goes against the initial reason for even doing the 5 percent allowance for the reserve. There’s a choice here – maybe we rethink the 5 percent allowance if we’re not getting the other half, which is true and realistic budgets.”

The School Board is in charge of drafting the school district’s budget, but the Assembly decides how much of the borough’s property tax will go toward schools each year and must approve the district’s spending plan. Assembly Member Todd Phillips said that’s an important responsibility.

“We hear the word micromanaging a lot,” he said. “I just want people to understand that we’re responsible for the expenditures of property taxes, and have to answer to people. These people have a right to know where the money is coming from, where it is being spent.”

Borough Manager Dan Bockhorst had recommended that the Assembly approve the spending increase despite disagreement over how the district builds its budget. He noted in a memo that continuing to postpone the increase could disrupt the school district’s operations.

The motion passed 5-2, with Moran and Phillips voting no. That puts this year’s Ketchikan School District budget at $44.47 million.

New outdoor sport complex in the works

Alaska and Yukon Headlines - Tue, 2014-04-08 13:51
An outdoor sport complex featuring soccer fields and an eight-lane rubberized track is being planned for the Yukon capital.

Long-running building dispute returns to court

Alaska and Yukon Headlines - Tue, 2014-04-08 13:48
The future of a disputed Copper Ridge-area apartment property that has pitted a suburban community against its developer continues to hang in limbo.

Juneau mayor says contested lands important

Southeast Alaska News - Tue, 2014-04-08 13:46

Juneau’s mayor says his community wants a fair hearing of its claims to land on the mainland between Petersburg and the capital city. The city and borough of Juneau in late March appealed a decision to the state’s Supreme court over the northern boundary of the new Petersburg borough.

Juneau petitioned the state’s Local Boundary Commission seeking to annex some of the same mainland territory in Petersburg’s proposed borough and wants the state’s highest court to weigh in on the dispute.

“We felt that the boundary commission did not look at our petition in the same light that they looked at the Petersburg petition on this whole issue,” Mayor Merrill Sanford explained this week. “So in the end our law department advised us that we didn’t have the same amount of scrutiny on our position that we would like to see happen and be able to justify our thoughts on it.”

The contested lands are between Holkham Bay and Cape Fanshaw. The area includes thirty-thousand acres at Hobart Bay, owned by Goldbelt, Juneau’s Native Corporation.

Juneau filed its annexation petition in 2011, about seven month after Petersburg’s incorporation petition. Capital city lawyers sought to consolidate the two, with one decision process for both, or at least postpone the Petersburg decision. However, the LBC denied that request. It held three days of hearings in Petersburg in May and June of 2012, with input from Juneau representatives and others. The LBC approved the Petersburg borough to go to a vote with some of the contested land closest to Juneau removed from the new borough area. Voters approved formation of the Petersburg borough in December of 2012, dissolving the city government.

In  the appeal to the Supreme Court Juneau argues it was not able to present all the evidence of claims to the contested land.

Mayor Sanford said the lands are important enough for the appeal. “I know that in the end it is a decision between Petersburg and Juneau but it’s the boundary commission’s duty to hear these things in a fair and equitable manner and our law department has made the decision that they probably in her mind, and in our mind, didn’t do that yet.”

Meanwhile, the Supreme Court appeal could delay some decisions in the new Petersburg borough, including the possible transfer of a state-owned dock in Hobart Bay. It’s one of three remote dock facilities the state may eventually transfer to Petersburg. The new municipality has also assessed privately-owned land in the new borough for property tax and could seek to select some state land in the area, as an entitlement of borough formation.

Petersburg Borough manager Steve Giesbrecht told the borough assembly this week he could not say when the issue would be decided by the state’s highest court.  “You know the longer this goes on the harder it will be for us to back up. We’re doing a lot of work on ordinances and mapping and everything else related to borough formation, so.  We just kindof don’t know when it will happen yet.”

Petersburg’s mayor Mark Jensen said defending the superior court appeal of the LBC decision cost about 30-thousand dollars. A superior court judge upheld the LBC decision in February.

Discriminatory clauses to be removed from act

Alaska and Yukon Headlines - Tue, 2014-04-08 13:45
The Yukon government will bring forward amendments to the Vital Statistics Act to remove any discrimination against same-sex parents.

And the nominee for official Alaska rifle is ...

Southeast Alaska News - Tue, 2014-04-08 13:39

The Last Frontier may soon have an official state bolt-action rifle.

Members of the House State Affairs Committee unanimously approved SB175 Tuesday, which names the pre-64 Winchester Model 70 as Alaska’s rifle.

Commonly dubbed the “Rifleman’s Rifle,” the gun is available in 18 calibers ranging from the small .22 Hornet round to the hefty .458 Winchester Magnum.

Two of those calibers — the .338 Winchester Magnum and .375 H&H Magnum — are designated “Alaskan,” said Eric Hollen, staff to bill sponsor Sen. Charlie Huggins, R-Wasilla.

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Petersburg schedules tax free day for May 3

Southeast Alaska News - Tue, 2014-04-08 13:26

 Shoppers will have another holiday from Petersburg sales tax next month. Petersburg’s borough assembly Monday approved a sales tax free day for May 3rd.

Local law allows for up to two tax free days a year and typically the borough has held tax holidays in spring and fall. Shop owner Savanne Guthrie represented the Chamber of Commerce’s retail committee which requested the tax free day.“The reason we pick May 3rd is that there are funds flowing again in our community after having crabbing and herring pounding going on,” Guthrie explained. “It is before our tourism hits which is about Mayfest, kicks that off. So it’s a time when we can encourage our community members to get out and shop. They hopefully have a little extra money to do so.”

Other local merchants wrote to the borough assembly about the importance of the tax holidays for their businesses.

Assembly member Nancy Strand wondered if the borough could afford a tax free day. “I see all the letters of support and they say it’s a great way for merchants to offer a deal. They could offer a six percent sale anytime. And I question whether it should always be on the back of the borough that the sale happens,” Strand said.

Most of the year, the borough collects a six percent sales tax on purchases of goods and some services. Finance director Jody Tow noted the borough is ahead of its budgeted amount for sales tax revenue this year by 250-thousand dollars. A tax holiday last October cost the municipal government over 12-thousand dollars in lost revenue.  

Guthrie told the assembly that October tax free day was the highest single day of sales for her business in five years. “And I can give you a couple of reasons for that if you’d like,” Guthrie said. “It was the morning of the breast cancer awareness walk. People were already out and about. Number two, (Permanent Fund Dividend checks) were in. In my shop, in addition to the six percent, I offered 20 percent. So there are reasons, as retailers we’re not just trying to ride along on the back of the borough. We’re trying to take this opportunity that we’ve been given and make the most of it.”

The borough assembly voted 5-0 to approve another tax free day. Mayor Mark Jensen and assembly member John Havrilek were not at the meeting. We’ll have more coverage of Monday’s assembly meeting coming up this week on local news.

 

WMHA season concludes

Alaska and Yukon Headlines - Tue, 2014-04-08 12:33
The local minor hockey season concluded this weekend with one final clash between the city’s top teams.

Exit exam bill could bring diplomas to more students

Southeast Alaska News - Tue, 2014-04-08 12:04

This sign was posted on the high school library doors during testing last week. Photo/Angela Denning

Graduation time is just around the corner and for most seniors that means walking a stage and accepting a diploma. But a few students a year in Petersburg do not receive a diploma because they didn’t pass a test. A bill making its way through the Alaska Legislature would change that. House Bill 220 would repeal the High School Graduation Qualifying Exam.

Angela Denning stopped into the Petersburg High School last week during test taking time.

The high school is especially quiet. Red signs are posted on the outside of the library doors and several classrooms.

High School Principal, Rick Dormer, says large groups of 10th graders are getting tested in the classrooms and smaller groups are in the library. The signs help others know to stay out because a quiet environment is important.

“You can see we have big red signs, ‘Testing, Do not Disturb’,” Dormer says, “We’re in the middle of it here today and kids are in a room and it’s three hours and it’s make it or break it. And we’ve had kids really crying before the test, crying after the test. It’s high stress, it’s high-stakes.”

There’s a lot riding on this test and students feel the pressure. If they don’t pass it, they don’t graduate with a diploma.

“And they must pass in three areas, reading, writing and mathematics. And they must pass it with a certain score that’s set by the state to earn their diploma,” Dormer says. “So despite anything that a student may or may not do, if they complete all graduation requirements, which has happened here in Petersburg, and do not pass this particular exam in the State of Alaska, we cannot give them a diploma in Petersburg High School. Rather, they get what we call a certificate of completion that is not equivalent.”

The certificate does not hold the same weight as a diploma. Students who want to further their education after high school can’t qualify for financial aid.

Sonya Stein is the Director of the Student Financial Assistance Office at the University of Alaska Anchorage.

“The federal department of education requires that a student has a high school diploma or its equivalent in order to be federal financial aid eligible,” says Stein.

An equivalent would be the GED or the General Education Development, which would require students to pass another test.

The exit exam has been required in Alaska for a decade. It was established through state law before the No Child Left Behind Law prompted other standardized tests.

There’s no middle ground with the exit exam.  . .either you pass it or you don’t.

Principal Rick Dormer says it can be heart breaking.

“I can tell you we’ve had two students who have not passed the test by one point, one section by one point,” Dormer says.

In both cases, the school paid some extra money to appeal the results to the state’s education department but it didn’t work.

“We don’t believe that’s the best assessment of a kid’s knowledge of what they know,” Dormer says. “Really any testing is there just as a measure to see what they know and then you build on it and so we don’t agree that high stakes testing is the best measure of what a kids knowledge is and whether or not they deserve a diploma. I think it’s a much more complicated than a one shot test.”

House Bill 220 would work retroactively, so past students who received a certificate instead of a diploma because they didn’t pass the test would be able to get a diploma. They’d just have to request it.

So far the bill hasn’t seen much opposition. It passed the House with a vote of 32 to 5. The Parnell administration and the Education Department support getting rid of the test as well.

The bill is sponsored by Representative Pete Higgins, a Republican from Fairbanks.