Education College launched with aim to produce more Alaskan teachers

Alaska’s higher education leaders are overhauling their operations in an effort to ultimately improve the outcomes of the state’s youngest students. The University of Alaska System debuted its College of Education this month, which system President Jim Johnsen hopes will provide better structure to teacher education programs statewide and eventually help the UA produce more homegrown teachers to fill vacancies in school districts statewide. “I can’t say it enough, teachers are the single most important job in our state and in our society,” Johnsen stressed in an interview. “The touch or touched every single person in our state and their purpose, more than any other occupation in our society, is to support our people and to advance our people.” Individuals with a solid educational background add to a skilled workforce, are more culturally aware, earn higher incomes, are less likely to be incarcerated and live healthier lives, Johnsen added. School districts across Alaska have collectively had to look Outside for up to 70 percent of their new teacher hires each year, according to Johnsen. UA College of Education Executive Dean Steve Atwater said more specifically, the system’s three main campuses in Anchorage, Fairbanks and Juneau — where the new Education College is located — graduate roughly 225 new teachers each year while school districts have to fill between 700 and 1,000 vacancies. Atwater joined the UA System in 2014 after five years as the superintendent of the Kenai Peninsula School District and time as a high school teacher and administrator in the Lake and Peninsula School District in Southwest Alaska. Johnsen and other state education officials have long noted that it not only costs districts more to bring in teachers from Outside, but many of those transplants don’t stick around long either, particularly in rural districts. Often, they simply don’t acclimate to living in remote parts of the state. While virtually unquantifiable, the whole challenge of keeping teachers is largely believed to be a fundamental issue underlying why Alaska’s students are routinely near or at the bottom of national performance indices for core subjects. “Especially in rural Alaska, they have a very high turnover rate so there isn’t this level of knowledge, awareness, commitment, particularly to communities — unique communities — across the state that would make these teachers more effective in those communities,” Johnsen elaborated. UA officials also regularly cite statistics that indicate up to 50 percent of otherwise high-performing Alaska high school graduates need remedial coursework once they enroll at a UA campus. Johnsen and Atwater believe a centralized College of Education will help the state university produce more homegrown teachers who better understand the state and are more able to adapt their instruction to what their students need, which should translate into better student outcomes. UA leaders have set a goal of producing 90 percent of the teachers Alaska school districts need to hire each year by 2025. The men emphasized that the schools of education at UA Fairbanks and Anchorage will not go away just because the college is in Juneau at UA Southeast. The teacher education programs will remain at all three campuses and hopefully be strengthened through increased coordination, more consistent standards and the elimination of redundancies, according to Johnsen. “There’s no effort to undue existing programs at the university; we’re not trying to narrow the focus or number of opportunities,” Atwater reiterated. There is capacity for more students in the existing teacher education programs; and if those classes can be filled the universities will happily hire more faculty to provide more classes, he said. The specific changes to the overall teacher education strategy will be led by the UA Teacher Education Council, a 12-member advisory body that Atwater chairs with representatives from each of the main campuses. The council doesn’t have the authority to eliminate programs — that power is held by the Board of Regents — but its recommendations will go through the channels of the system to become policy, he said. Atwater said the system’s traditional teacher education programs are strong and generally need to be grown. However, an initial change that could be made is consolidating the two master’s level education technology programs in Fairbanks and Juneau. He said each has about a dozen students. “Neither program is very well attended or enrolled and why do we have two? That’s low-hanging fruit conversation we can have,” he described. “Does it make sense to keep going independently from one another or should we combine them and just have one?” Johnsen has spent the last several years implementing the system’s Strategic Pathways initiative, an effort to similarly overhaul and streamline mostly administrative operations to save money while improving results during lean budget years. He said four years of cuts by the state Legislature to the system’s General Fund budget have amounted to a cumulative cut of about $165 million on a system-wide budget that peaked at about $922 million in 2014. In addition to the direct budget cuts, enrollment has fallen nearly 15 percent over the past four years, according to UA data, which has reduced tuition revenue. Legislators added about $10 million to the UA budget for fiscal year 2019, a little more than $1 million of which will go to the College of Education, according to Johnsen. He noted that school districts in Alaska generally spend $20 million per year recruiting teachers from outside. “If we can spend $1 or $2 (million) more each year and at some point bring that $20 million number down that makes a ton of sense,” Johnsen said. Some of the budget increase will also go to the system’s marketing and recruitment programs to attract more students, which have been scaled back significantly as well. Part of that will be pushing the post-baccalaureate program that is an avenue for those already with a college degree to quickly become a teacher. “In a year a person can have a degree in teaching if they come in with a baccalaureate degree; they can have a master’s degree and be a full-time teacher in one year,” Johnsen described. “It’s a super-cool program that we really want to expand.” When it comes to producing more homegrown teachers, Johnsen said the college is employing the national Educators Rising program. Very similar to the wildly successful Alaska Native Science and Engineering Program, known as ANSEP, in Anchorage, Educators Rising targets middle and high schoolers interested in teaching and enables them to earn college credits while in high school. It gives them a direct and cost-effective means to achieve their career goals. Atwater added that teaching is currently a career path in about 25 school districts and UA officials want that number to continue to grow. “We’ll have a much higher number of high school kids who are thinking in terms of becoming a teacher more seriously and actually taking some introductory-type classes to get them the real sense of what that’s about rather than just waiting for them to come and hoping they’ll enroll in a teacher prep program,” Atwater said. He continued by emphasizing that elevating teaching at a societal level could intrinsically help recruitment in Alaska. In other places around the world teachers as doctors are revered in the United States, he said. “The profession of teaching has to be viewed as really important or actually the most important thing and we as a state need to give the teaching profession the esteem that will draw kids to it,” Atwater said. ^ Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

LNG tariffs could be self-defeating move for China

In the short term, China may have to pay more for liquefied natural gas imports though longer term it has several other supply options if it goes ahead with its threatened 25 percent tariff on U.S. LNG, analysts reported in the week after China’s announcement. There could be a lot more LNG coming from expansions in Qatar, Australia and Papua New Guinea over the next several years, with new projects moving toward final investment decisions in Mozambique and Canada’s West Coast. And there is the scheduled late-2019 start-up of the 2,500-mile Power of Siberia pipeline to move Russian gas to China. The line’s capacity of 3 billion cubic feet of gas per day could fulfil more than 15 percent of China’s import demand in 2023, based on the International Energy Agency’s 2018 forecast report. Neither Gazprom nor China has announced pricing terms for the gas. As a near-term reaction if the tariff takes effect, U.S. gas would become uneconomical in China and traders would shift their cargoes to send U.S. LNG to other buyers like Japan and South Korea, while redirecting non-U.S. gas to China, Trevor Sikorski, with Energy Aspects in London, told Bloomberg. China would probably end up paying about 10 percent more for spot cargoes after the swaps, he said. Spot-market pricing fluctuates much more than contract prices linked to oil or other fixed indices. The tariff would not reduce overall U.S. LNG export volumes, but would reorient trade flows, pushing more U.S. gas to Europe and other markets, while Mideast and African cargoes would be pushed to Asia, driving up prices, Neil Beveridge, an analyst with Sanford C. Bernstein &Co., was quoted in the Australian Financial Review. A 25 percent tariff could hit the next wave of U.S. projects with a “real impact on prospective deals … it certainly adds to the risk of delay,” David Lang, global head of LNG at law firm Baker &McKenzie, told Bloomberg. “This is a pretty dramatic move.” “At least in the short term any Chinese buyer looking for long-term supply would have to drag their feet on signing a U.S. contract,” Jason Feer, head of business intelligence at Poten &Partners in Houston, told Bloomberg. It could hit U.S. developers seeking long-term contracts to underpin financing of their export projects, Giles Farrer, research director for global gas and LNG supply for research firm Wood Mackenzie, was quoted by the Houston Chronicle. As much as the threatened tariff may hurt U.S. project developers, there will be a price to end-users in China. “This action is more likely to hurt Chinese buyers than U.S. exporters,” Katie Bays, an analyst with Height Securities in Washington, D.C., was quoted by Bloomberg. China said it would impose the tariff if President Donald Trump follows through with his Aug. 2 threat of more duties on goods imported from China. “So long as the U.S. places no barriers on exports of its own, such barriers … by importing countries would be potentially self-defeating,” CNBC quoted Citigroup analysts. “This coming winter for example, China is likely to be short on both LNG and soybeans, two U.S. commodities on which it has placed barriers.” However, a tariff war could cast doubt on the dependability of U.S. gas supplies, Citigroup added. China’s gas consumption is rising dramatically as the country — as a matter of government policy — tries to clean its air of coal pollution by burning more gas. Warren Patterson, commodity strategist for ING Bank, said he was “quite surprised” to see LNG show up on China’s list. “Given the transition we are seeing in China, with a move away from coal toward natural gas, I would have thought that the government would have wanted to ensure adequate supply,” Patterson told Bloomberg. The importance of U.S. gas to help meet that demand may mean the threatened tariffs don’t last, said Vivek Chandra, chief executive of aspiring exporter Texas LNG, which is working to develop a 2-million-tonne-per-year terminal in Brownsville, Texas. “Imports of U.S. LNG and oil into China represent one of the best ways for both countries to balance their trade balances,” Chandra told the Australian Financial Review. “Thus, we do not expect these tariffs to prevail in the long term.” Beveridge, with Sanford C. Bernstein &Co., shared a similar view with Reuters: “LNG is one of the most obvious ways to lower a trade deficit between the U.S. and China, and if there is a trade deal to be done LNG will be involved. … The latest rhetoric smacks of a negotiation being played out in a very public way.” But politics could make it harder. Hugo Brennan, senior Asia analyst at consultancy Verisk Maplecroft, told CNBC: “Geopolitical dynamics will undermine American exporters’ bid to become major gas suppliers to China.” There are other suppliers “eager to fill the gap,” Charlie Riedl of the Center for LNG, which represents the U.S. industry, told the London Financial Times. “This … would have very real effects on the U.S. LNG industry.” China could turn to Australia and Qatar, the world’s two biggest exporters, to supply its needs, ING’s Patterson said. Australia is nearing the end of a massive build-up of LNG capacity, with its sixth and seventh new export projects to come online this year, providing several opportunities for lower-cost expansions of existing liquefaction plants. The partners in Papua New Guinea’s 4-year-old LNG project are looking to make an investment decision on a major expansion next year. In Mozambique, Anadarko, the leader of the largest of several gas projects, has targeted the first half of next year for its investment decision. The world’s largest LNG producer, Qatar, already has decided to expand its 77 million tonnes of annual capacity by 30 percent, with a 2023-2024 start-up. The $40 billion (Canadian) Shell-LNG project in Kitimat, British Columbia, is scheduled for a final investment decision later this year. Larry Persily is a former Alaska journalist, state and federal official who has long tracked oil and gas markets and projects worldwide.

Feds approve Donlin mine plan in unique joint decision

One of the world’s largest gold prospects is one big step closer to becoming one of the world’s largest gold mines after federal agencies issued a first-of-its-kind decision Aug. 13 in Anchorage.  U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Alaska District Commander Col. Michael Brooks and Assistant Interior Secretary Joe Balash signed a joint record of decision to finish the environmental impact statement for Donlin Gold’s proposed open-pit mine and approve a right-of-way across federal land for a natural gas pipeline that will fuel the mine’s large power plant.  The record of decision generally approved Donlin Gold’s preferred construction plan for the gold mine near Crooked Creek in the upper Kuskokwim River drainage. More specifically, it approved the project’s Clean Water Act Section 404 wetlands fill permit application — applications the Corps adjudicates for the Environmental Protection Agency. Donlin’s permit allows for the disturbance of roughly 3,500 acres of wetlands, according to the EIS documents.  Donlin General Manager Andy Cole said the record of decision is the result of more than 20 years of thorough planning.  “I think it clearly demonstrates that the project has a track record of engineering excellence and a strong culture of safety, environmental stewardship and community engagement, all values that will remain constant,” Cole said. “We believe that Donlin Gold can be a model of responsible mine development with the potential to generate meaningful benefits for our Native corporation partners and communities throughout Alaska for many decades to come.”  The EIS was initiated in December 2012.  Donlin spokesman Kurt Parkan noted that nearly 400 meetings were held on the company’s proposal, with about 350 of those led by the company and another 50 or so by the Corps of Engineers.  However, the world-scale mine that would extract upwards of 33 million ounces of gold over an initial 27-year life is only part of the overall project. Substantial support infrastructure for the mine would also be built, including a 312-mile, 14-inch natural gas pipeline from near Beluga on the west side of Cook Inlet to the mine site to provide a fuel supply for the 227-megawatt power plant at the mine site. Donlin’s plan also calls for a 30-mile access road from the Kuskokwim to the mine as well as expanding the Bethel barge dock and constructing additional fuel terminals in Dutch Harbor.  Donlin Gold leaders acknowledge the project is more sensitive to gold prices than even other Alaska prospects simply because of its associated infrastructure costs.  Gold was trading for nearly $1,200 per ounce on Aug. 14.  “It’s safe to say that the price of gold currently is too low,” Parkan wrote in an email.  Donlin Gold estimates the mine and associated infrastructure that includes a natural gas pipeline from west Cook Inlet and fuel storage all the way in Dutch Harbor, will cost $6.7 billion based on its plan from a 2011 feasibility study.  Donlin Gold is owned by Canadian-based Novagold Resources Inc. and Barrick Gold Corp.  Brooks said at a signing ceremony held at the Corps’ Alaska headquarters on Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson that the joint Donlin decision — the first of its kind in the nation — is the last major permit he will approve. Brooks handed over command of the Corps Alaska District Aug. 14; he said he is retiring after 25 years of service.  Corps officials emphasized that the record of decision was made into an event less for the decision rendered than for the fact that it was the product of multiple agencies reaching a single conclusion.  “I think it is something to be celebrated that different parts of the federal government are working together to streamline these processes,” Brooks said.  Corps Alaska Regulatory Chief David Hobbie said in an interview that the public will be split on whatever decision an agency makes regarding a major project such as Donlin, adding that lessons learned from this EIS can be applied to similar projects in an effort to speed up the decision-making process.  “This really wasn’t about Donlin’s good, bad or indifferent; it’s about the joint record of decisions because the federal government came together and spoke with one voice. That’s good for the taxpayer, right? Even if they don’t like the decision, at least we made a decision,” Hobbie said.  A major aspect of “streamlining” such permitting is developing a good schedule initially and making sure all stakeholders, including the applicant, stick to it, he added.  The mine would be on land owned by The Kuskowkim Corp., the area Alaska Native village corporation and Calista Corp., the regional Native corporation, owns the subsurface mineral rights.  Calista CEO Andrew Guy said in an interview that the company supports Donlin largely because its leadership has come to trust the environmental review process despite the fact that some of its shareholders — and local tribal governments — oppose the project because of concerns it could harm subsistence resources, particularly salmon in the Kuskokwim.  “We selected certain lands for development purposes but we did not get into that for a long time, primarily because of concerns to the environment and our people’s reliance on subsistence to make a living. But we saw how (the National Environmental Policy Act) affected and impacted mining operations; we saw how NEPA really worked and that’s when our board and management decided that we’ve seen enough of the positive impacts that NEPA has on the process that, yes, now it’s time for us to fulfill (the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act’s) mandate to provide the work and jobs to our shareholders,” Guy said.  He said that Calista shareholders would benefit not only through mineral royalty revenues to the company but also through work its subsidiary companies would do at the mine.  The Yukon-Kuskokwim River Alliance and the tribal government in the city of Bethel, Orutsararmiut Native Council, said in a statement they are “outraged” by the decision. The groups said the agencies ignored voices from the region and could hurt wildlife and subsistence hunters and fishermen.  Guy additionally stressed that Donlin would lay the groundwork for lower-cost energy and technology infrastructure by bringing natural gas and fiber-optic cable to the region. Calista, in concert with the state and federal governments, could eventually expand that infrastructure to nearby villages he said.  While the EIS decision is a milestone for Donlin, the project is far from being green-lighted.  In addition to the record of decision, the company still has to secure numerous other state and federal permits, among them approvals for water discharge, waste management and a tailings dam safety permit that will eventually require additional geotechnical drilling, according to Parkan.  After the permits are secured company leaders will reevaluate the project’s economics and begin the search for financing if the project pencils out.  Editor's note: This story has been updated from the original version to include Rick Parkan's comments about the current price of gold and its impact on the project. Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]  

Supreme Court parses, approves salmon habitat measure for ballot

The Alaska Supreme Court approved most, but not all, of the contentious ballot initiative aimed at strengthening the state’s salmon habitat protections in a decision issued Wednesday morning, meaning the initiative will be on the November ballot sans one key provision. The five-member court unanimously ruled that language in the proposed law change requiring the Department of Fish and Game Commissioner to deny permit applications for development in salmon habitat if the activity were deemed to have a “significant adverse effect” is an unconstitutional limitation on the Legislature’s authority to appropriate the state’s resources. That’s because the language would mandate the state to value anadromous fish habitat over other resources, according to the justices — a balancing act that the Alaska Constitution specifically reserves for the Legislature. “(W)here a project like a mine or a hydroelectric dam would permanently, and perhaps irreversibly, displace fish habitat, there is no reasonable interpretation under which that habitat would not suffer ‘substantial damage’ as the initiative defines it,” the 48-page opinion states. “If the habitat has been permanently displaced, it cannot be ‘likely’ for that habitat to be restored within a ‘reasonable period,’ because it will never be restored.” On Oct. 9, 2017, Superior Court Judge Mark Rindner overturned Mallott's Sept. 12 rejection of the initiative petition, which was based on the Department of Law’s determination that it is unconstitutional. The Supreme Court decision remands the case back to Rindner, who is to direct Mallott and the Division of Elections to put the initiative on the Nov. 6 ballots. Ryan Schryver, director of the nonprofit leading the initiative effort Stand for Salmon, said in a brief interview that the group is naturally disappointed that the court struck a small but significant provision of the law change. However, Schryver stressed the group is happy that, “The heart and soul of what we’re trying to do remains intact.” He said the initiative is still fundamentally about making sure the state’s economically and culturally important salmon resources are protected while assuring industry has clear and predictable development standards. Stand for Alaska, a counter-campaign supported by the state’s oil and mining industries as well as Alaska’s Native regional corporations with the exception of Bristol Bay Native Corp., which has taken a neutral stance on the initiative, said in a prepared statement that the courts decision to strike a portion of Ballot Measure 1 “validates just how flawed and poorly crafted the measure is.” “Even with today’s changes, this measure still replaces our science-based habitat management system with untested regulations that will result in job loss and kill current and future, vital projects,” the statement reads. “Stand for Alaska remains strongly opposed to the misguided measure that threatens our jobs, communities and way of life.” Justice Daniel Winfree agreed the “significant adverse effect” language needed to be struck for the initiative to comply with the Constitution, but he partially dissented with the overall ruling because he doesn’t believe it went far enough. According to Winfree’s dissenting opinion, there is not reasonable way to interpret the habitat protections and mitigation requirements that would not effect a resource appropriation. “Where the court and I diverge is with other (initiative) provisions that, while not explicitly prohibiting the Legislature from allocating anadromous fish habitat, would have the same practical effect,” he wrote. Stand for Salmon representatives insist the initiative would mainly codify best practices Fish and Game currently uses in evaluating development permits in salmon habitat and would protect those actions from being degraded by political influence. Stand for Alaska alleges the group is attempting to severely restrict, if not altogether stop, substantive development statewide. Attorney Valerie Brown, who argued on behalf of Stand for Salmon in front of the court, emphasized that provisions detailing what constitutes healthy salmon habitat remain intact after the ruling. Those provisions deal with water quality, maintaining stream flows and require any mitigation to offset unavoidable habitat damage be done within the impacted water body. “The habitat standards are a huge improvement over current law because they are actual standards Fish and Game must apply when they’re considering permits, so it’s definitely a step in the right direction,” Brown said. Currently, Title 16, the state’s anadromous fish habitat permitting statute, directs the ADFG commissioner to issue a development permit as long as a project provides “proper protection of fish and game.” The initiative sponsors contend that is far too vague and an update is needed to just define what “proper protection” means. In early 2017, Alaska Board of Fisheries chair John Jensen sent a letter to legislative leaders urging them to update Title 16 with opportunities for public involvement in permit application reviews and enforceable development standards. Brown also noted that other parts of the proposal dealing with public process were not impacted by the court’s decision. “One of the other provisions that will definitely go forward that is a huge leap forward over current law is the provisions for public notice and public comment on large projects that could cause a lot of harm to salmon habitat. This will be first time we have a chance to participate in those.” The fact that salmon habitat permits are one of the only environmental permits the state issues without notifying the public has been a rallying point for initiative supporters. While state Department of Law attorneys originally argued the provisions of the initiative were too intertwined to sever without wholly discarding it, Attorney General Jahna Lindemuth said in a formal statement that the court confirmed Law’s understanding of the powers and limitations of a citizens’ initiative in the state Constitution. “That limitation extends to the Legislature’s power to allocate the state’s resources — including fisheries and waters — among competing uses,” Lindemuth said. She also thanked the court for its unexpectedly quick ruling on the case, which will provide the Division of Elections additional time to prepare ballot materials in advance of the November election. The state had asked the court for a ruling by early September, just ahead of a deadline for the Division of Elections to have general election information ready to distribute to voters. The Wednesday morning release of the ruling also caught folks involved in the case by surprise. The court has historically handed down its opinions on Fridays, almost without exception.   Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

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