A plan to replace a beloved but decaying Anchorage elementary school sparks a neighborhood divide

·9 min read

Apr. 23—Inlet View Elementary School sits in an Anchorage neighborhood lined by sidewalks and dense with Little Free Libraries, a place that people say prides itself on connection and civic mindedness. But an unexpectedly contentious battle is brewing in South Addition, playing out in estranged relationships, angry text messages and sparring Nextdoor posts.

It all has to do with the future of the elementary school. Inlet View Elementary is known for being small and welcoming, a school where teachers stay for decades. It is so popular that families from other areas of Anchorage enter a lottery so their kids can attend. This year, there's a waitlist of 27 students for the incoming kindergarten class, according to the Anchorage School District.

But the 1957-era school building, one of the oldest in the district, is decaying.

The Anchorage School District's plan to build a new school building on the south side of the Inlet View Elementary property and demolish the old one has met with fierce resistance from a few neighbors who've poured hundreds of hours into opposing the plan.

On one side is a collection of frustrated parents and neighbors losing patience with a long-delayed project they say is essential to keeping students attending a beloved school. On the other is a handful of vocal and organized residents who contend that their concerns about the new design have been ignored.

The situation went from simmering to boiling this month when a $111 million Anchorage School District bond that included $31 million to pay for construction of the replacement building failed. Some have suggested that the efforts of the opposing neighbors are to blame for the school bond's failure to pass and the further delay of the rebuild.

Now, recriminations are flying.

Rep. Zack Fields, whose state House district includes South Addition, texted two constituents who organized against the new design that "there is a special place in hell for people who oppose schools that kids in a neighborhood need."

The situation has "set neighbors against neighbors in ways I never thought would happen," said Lois Epstein, one of the neighbors who opposes the design plan to rebuild on the south side of the lot.

A building at the end of its life

Parents praise Inlet View for its caring teachers, warm community and international baccalaureate program, the first at an ASD elementary school. The school's geographic service boundaries encompass South Addition, Bootleggers Cove, downtown and the Huntington Park neighborhood. Twenty-three percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, according to district data.

Inlet View's building is at the end of its life, and almost every system is outdated or failing, according to parents and district documents. Sewage spilled onto the playground at one point last year. There's no fire sprinkler system. The gym is also the lunchroom. The building has a capacity of 170 students, but 216 attend.

Parents began mobilizing to get a new school built many years ago, said Petra Wilm, a neighbor and parent of an Inlet View student who has been involved in the effort. (Wilm, an architect, is not professionally involved in the design work.)

There's been a long, complicated history of attempts to move the project forward. Finally, after multiple studies, the district settled on a design plan that called for a new building, saying it would be the less expensive option in the long run.

In 2020, an ASD school bond included $3.34 million for design work. Last fall, the planned rebuild was unveiled to the neighborhood: a two-story building on the south side of the lot with a larger capacity to account for future growth. Students would attend school in the old building during construction, and the original structure would eventually be demolished.

After the new design became public, a few neighbors banded together to fight the plan to relocate the building from the north edge of the property to the south.

"People not only didn't like the design, they didn't like being surprised, either," said Epstein, who works as an engineer and consultant.

They cited concerns about groundwater, traffic patterns and even whether the playground would be in the shade for much of the year as reasons to halt the project as it is currently designed.

The neighbors, most vocally Epstein along with Martin and Deborah Hansen, formed Friends of Inlet View Elementary School, an effort to keep the school's footprint on the original north site. Their tagline: "Pro Public Schools, Pro Public Process."

They launched volleys of letters to the editor and attended every public meeting about the project they could. They say they were upset that they hadn't been consulted, and that no one at the district seemed to be listening to their concerns over the new design.

"It was not a respectful dialogue," Epstein said. "And that's something I think this neighborhood values."

For their part, parents say they just want their kids in an adequate building. And they're tired of waiting.

"We just want it to be fixed," said Juli Lucky, a former PTA president. "It's very frustrating that I've been working on this since my daughter was in first grade and she's in eighth grade now."

She also has a son who is in fifth grade and will likely never attend school in a new building.

The opposition seems to be coming from neighbors without kids at the school, and even then only a few people, said Wilm. But she thinks they've had an impact.

"Those who are opposed, even though they're a small group, are organized and connected," she said.

The opposition sprouted when "we were trying to deal with COVID and teachers who are exhausted, and it just feels very lopsided, as far as efforts we were able to put in," she said.

[An expensive, bitter, high-stakes city election leaves Anchorage politics almost entirely the same]

'This has inspired passion'

The Hansens have lived in their home directly adjacent to Inlet View Elementary for more than 40 years. They profess to love the school and consider themselves caretakers of it — they even made their dog a little window in the fence, so he can indulge in his pastime of observing the kids on the playground.

Some have charged that the Hansens are NIMBYs who want to stop the rebuild because it will put the new school building much closer to their home. They insist that's not true, and they just see the design and process as so flawed that they feel bound to try to stop it from being built.

"This is something that is clearly a mistake," said Deborah Hansen. "And it's a local issue, and it's like, what can be more important?"

The couple's opposition to the design has put them at odds with some of their neighbors. One of her adult son's friends won't even speak to the couple anymore, Deborah Hansen said.

After the school bond's defeat became obvious, Martin Hansen received a text message from Fields, his elected representative in the Alaska Legislature.

"There is a special place in hell for people that oppose schools that kids in a neighborhood need," Fields wrote, according to a text shared with the Daily News. "We will keep Inlet View open despite your reprehensible attempts to shut the school down," the text went on to say.

The message ended with Fields telling Hansen, "I strongly encourage you to move out of South Addition. This neighborhood supports schools and if you don't then you should leave — now."

"I couldn't believe it," said Hansen, a retired National Park Service employee who now moonlights as a cross-country ski coach and kindergarten teaching aide. "It's a personal threat. Somebody is telling me I need to leave."

Fields said he texted a few days later to apologize for his choice of words. But he maintains that he's just a passionate supporter of the school, and that opponents have spread misinformation to stop progress on a sorely needed school design he asserts is supported by "95-97 percent of the community."

He said he couldn't think of another issue that's put him so at odds with some of his own constituents.

"Those five families have bizarre aesthetic concerns. ... That's why I don't want to elevate them," Fields said. "They're not representative."

"It's so offensive to me that we would even be questioning having a functioning building" for students, he said.

"People have gotten hotheaded and I wish that wasn't happening, but this has inspired passion," Wilm said.

What happens next?

The future of Inlet View school isn't clear. The rebuild design plan still needs to pass the Urban Design Commission, a city board that will hear the issue at its meeting in June. Money remains a question. The Anchorage School District won't say whether the funds for Inlet View's new school will be on the next bond cycle.

The district "has started the process of researching next steps to address the important safety, restoration, and maintenance needs Proposition 1 addressed," spokeswoman Lisa Miller said in an email. "Part of the research is also to understand why it didn't pass."

The parents who've pushed to get the new school built find themselves again waiting. In the meantime, the opponents have no plan to back down.

"It does get old being called a jerk all the time," said Hansen.

Wilm says the experience has challenged her feelings about Anchorage, even about Alaska. She wonders what message crumbling infrastructure sends young people.

"I just don't see this as a neighborhood that's going to fade away or that people are going to stop wanting to live here," she said. "And it's just sad to me that we have the most decrepit school in the city."

When she walks her dogs in the neighborhood, she also wonders about mending what's been strained among people.

"I feel some sadness walking through some certain areas, some confusion," she said. "Like, what happened?"