Sitnews - Stories in the News - Ketchikan, Alaska



by Mike Harpold


June 07, 2003
Saturday - 12:50 pm

At the height of the Viet Nam war, 1968 to 1970, I lived and worked for the U.S. government in a series of small towns in rural South Viet Nam. Each morning, and each afternoon, the sides of the roads were clogged by Vietnamese children trudging to and from school. The boys wore blue shorts, white shirts and plastic sun helmets. The girls wore white dresses and white bonnets. Each carried a plastic book bag that, given the small size of the
Mike Harpold

child, assumed the proportions of a suitcase.

The children sat in long rows at benches in the school building, which was often thatch-walled and thatch-roofed, and recited their lessons in unison. The crump of artillery fire seemed always to be in the background, and frequently the chatter of small arms fire. Yet the children remained in their places. The schools, a frequent target of the Viet Cong - what better way to destroy a society - remained open throughout the war, the children removed only if they were in immediate danger.

Ten years later, I was sent back to Southeast Asia to prepare a report for Congress on the Boat People, refugees who had fled Viet Nam by boat and were gathering in refugee camps along the coast of Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore. In each camp that I visited the best kept, albeit flimsy, shelter was the school. School was in session everyday, and I learned that in many cases, children were tutored on the decks of the crowded refugee boats during their peril filled voyage.

I think about that as our own Borough Assembly debates the level of funding this community will provide to its' schools, shrinking back from considering any property tax increase. The community is economicly depressed, they argue, people can't afford a tax increase. The Vietnamese were in a condition far worse than 'economicly depressed', existing through a primitive system of barter and share, yet they provided for the education of their young.

The manner in which we carry out the education of our young, as in the case of the Vietnamese, reflects the viability of our society. How we educate our kids here in Ketchikan, Alalaska says what Ketchikan is.

Back in 1984, Elaine and I chose Ketchikan as the place we wanted to live. Recently married, she moved up from New Orleans and I moved up from San Francisco. We looked at Ketchikan as sort of a honeymoon, expecting to move on after a year or so. We were impressed by the sense of community, the amenities provided and supported through the borough and city governments that made the community very liveable. Most of all, we were impressed by the pride Ketchikan had in its' school system. We decided to stay and raise a family.

I retired in 1998, the year after the pulp mill closed, and we again considered moving. The economic outlook was not good, but our biggest concern was the education of our daughters, then in elementery school. We liked the schools, the new rec center, the myriad of plays, concerts and offerings by the Ketchikan Area Arts and Humanities Council, the growth prospects for the local UAS campus. Ketchikan had a 'can do' attitude and we expected those amenities to continue. "Nobody ever called the place Ketchi-can't," I used to pun.

Yet this year the Borough Assembly is signalling that it will no longer fund these quality of life measures for the community. The school district budget has already been cut $500,000 and student activities funding reduced by $112,000, almost 40 percent. Grants for the arts and humanities, Drug Free Youth, Big Brothers/Big Sisters as weIl as grants for the learning center at the college are proposed to be eliminated.

The Assembly will consider community grants at its' meeting on Monday night - 5:30pm at the City Council Chambers. Borough Mayor Mike Salazar says that he is willing to take a second look at school funding at the end of the borough budget process. It is up to you and me to persuade the Assembly what kind of a town we want Ketchikan to be. Time is short. Weigh in.


©Mike Harpold
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