It’s a problem that’s been slowly growing for decades. It’s a problem that’s not going to be cheap to solve. And it’s a problem the Kenai Peninsula Borough can no longer afford to ignore, according to borough government, school district and legislative representatives.
Kachemak Selo needs a new school.
Last Thursday during a community meeting, those representatives and local parents and teachers filled one of the larger rooms of Kachemak Selo School’s middle-high school building, situated more or less in the center of the Russian Old Believer village 30 miles east of Homer at the head of Kachemak Bay.
The attendees included Borough Mayor Charlie Pierce, Kenai Peninsula Borough School District Superintendent Sean Dusek, the southern peninsula’s two Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly representatives Kelly Cooper and Willy Dunne, School Board member Zen Kelly, a former principal of the school and more. They were all there to talk about the state of a proposed project to build Kachemak Selo a new school, something the community has been working on for years and that the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development approved last year through a state grant program.
The next step in the process is getting borough residents from Homer to Nikiski and Seward to vote for footing the bill — approximately $5.4 million in general obligation bonds to be paid back by the borough through property taxes. Because the entire borough backs the bond, all borough voters have to be asked for approval.
At least one of Kachemak Selo School’s three buildings was repurposed from a residential home. All three of the buildings were only ever meant to be temporary school facilities, said Borough Assembly member Cooper, but have been in use for decades and are past their useful life, according to representatives of the school district.
Feodora Reutov, 47, moved to the village when she was just 7, which means she’s been watching the buildings deteriorate over the last 40 years.
Reutov was there when members of the community physically dragged one of the two elementary school buildings across the village into its current position. She attended Kachemak Selo through high school, then put her five children through school in the same buildings. Now, two of her grandchildren will be educated in the same buildings as she was — buildings that are subject to periodic flooding, drafts in the winter and shifting with the ground.
“It’s been dragging forever,” Reutov said of the process to get a new facility. “I would be so excited if they would start on the school.”
Before the meeting last Thursday, elementary teacher Alana Greear gave Pierce and other representatives a short tour of both buildings used for K-5 students. She pointed out the spots most susceptible to flooding, where carpeting has had to be replaced several times. She also talked about the back door that teachers have to tie down frequently to keep it from being blown open by the wind, as well as the wall that literally lifts up and separates from the floor during winter.
“We’ve gone through two sets of books, carpets,” Greear said. “We used to have really cute gathering carpets. Those were ruined.”
The middle-high school building looked to be in slightly better shape on Thursday, though the floors still slanted, uncovered light bulbs lit the hallways and cracks ran up the walls to the ceiling. Jennifer Sorensen, a teacher there, remarked that it looked nice because things had recently been repaired and painted over. She said a visit in February, for example, would reveal an entirely different looking building.
Small repairs made every year provide bandages to the overall problem. State law prohibits the borough from housing students in an unsafe school building.
In order to solve this problem, Reutov said she and other community members have been involved in trying to update the school facilities for the last 17 years. More recently, the community petitioned the school board for a new facility in 2011, at which point the school district and borough started exploring solutions.
If Kachemak Selo was outside of borough boundaries, responsibility for ensuring a safe building would fall on the State of Alaska. Rep. Paul Seaton. NP-Homer, said that if the bond for the local match is not approved by voters, the matter could end up in court because the borough won’t be allowed to keep housing students in the buildings.
That was the case with the new school funded, but not yet built, for Kivalina, which the state committed to building after a drawn-out lawsuit.
As representatives pointed out Thursday, boroughs are responsible for school buildings within their own boundaries, which Kachemak Selo School is.
The borough and school district originally pitched ideas for a combined school for all three villages, or working on a safe road for Kachemak Selo students to get to Homer. Those plans were ultimately scrapped. Brenda Ahlberg, community and fiscal projects manager for the borough, said the work group looking into it found making the switchback trail leading down to the village into a real road would cost about $60 million. Borough staff decided the most feasible option would be to build Kachemak Selo its own new school.
Specifications for the new school were funded by a Community Development Block grant in 2013, and later approved by the Department of Education and Early Development during the Fiscal Year 2017 grant application process.
The state legislature approved a roughly $10 million match through the School Construction grant program in 2016, with that money coming from the state and a required local match of up to about $5.4 million. Seaton said the borough is getting the matching deal it did because, though Kachemak Selo School is within borough boundaries, it is technically off the road system.
Though the switchback trail is traversable by many types of vehicles — less so in the winter — it’s still just that, a trail. It’s not a borough-maintained road, Ahlberg said, and there is no legal access to safely transport students. There are no plans to upgrade the road to borough standards, Ahlberg said.
The actual proposed school will be 15,226 square feet located on about 8 acres at a site 3,000 feet east of the current elementary buildings. The facility is slated to include six classrooms, a multipurpose room, space for industrial arts and special needs, and a library.
The 8-acre site, called “East Site No. 2,” was selected by a committee formed through the borough, and would be sold to the borough by the current property owner. The three current school buildings are being leased by the borough.
Several people pointed out Thursday that a road leading from the current school buildings used for K-fifth grade to the new school site is included in the project and the price tag. Ergo, borough residents would not only be voting for the new school facility by approving the bond, they would also be getting the road at the same time.
Borough and school district representatives at the meeting also talked about the price tag more in-depth. Some feedback from borough residents is that the project is too expensive for the number of students who attend the school. Assembly members have said the borough does not have the flexibility to change the proposed scope of the new school. Its size is dictated by a state statute based on the number of students in the building. All school buildings, no matter their enrollment, must be built to the same minimum state standards. The building also will cost more to build because of its isolated site.
Reutov and some of the teachers present also pointed out that, though enrollment is hovering around 48 students right now, they believe that number will rise in the next few years.
“It’s going to be worth every penny,” she said. “Because my kids are buying properties here and houses, that have kids, they’re just starting. So there will be little kids coming in.”
To pay for the school, the borough assembly approved a ballot proposition in June for this October’s election that asks voters to let the borough go out to bond for no more than $5,390,000. This amount constitutes the 35 percent local match stipulated by DEED when it awarded the grant.
Including charges incurred for bond transactions and the roughly $10 million being given by the state, the total project costs comes to just less than $15.5 million.
According to the ballot proposal language, it’s currently set to be a 20-year bond. If the bond passes, each borough resident will pay approximately $4.95 per $100,000 of assessed property value, or less than the cost of a six pack of Pabst Blue Ribbon beer at the Grogg Shop in Homer. That’s based on the borough’s Fiscal Year 2018 taxable assessed valuation, according to the borough web page on the project. Seniors and veterans who get the $300,000 assessment exemption on top of the $50,000 residential exemption would pay less.
Pierce said during the meeting that the borough hopes to realize savings along the way that will reduce the amount of the bond. People at the meeting also talked about the possibility of community members contracting to build the road to the new school themselves, a cost that could offset the total local match amount and also provide jobs to the community.
Seaton, who represents the area in the Alaska Legislature, spoke up during the meeting to give an overview of how this proposed project came about on the legislative level. He said the Kachemak Selo School was listed as the No. 1 priority on the list of major maintenance and grant projects for the state two years in a row.
“This was the highest priority for the state of Alaska,” he said.
The state grant to help fund the school will expire next year. Seaton said there’s an opportunity to get it extended, but that it wouldn’t be easy. If the grant expires, the borough would very likely be paying a greater local match amount for a future project that would get reimbursed by the state, Seaton said.
“This program that has $10 million coming upfront from the state is the best deal that can be anticipated from state reimbursement for this needed school that the borough is going to be required to do, because you can’t house kids in unsafe conditions,” he said.
The last school in the borough to be built through bonding was Seward Middle School, with that bond being approved in the 2002 borough election. Borough voters approved up to $14.7 million for the project. On the southern peninsula, West Homer Elementary School was paid for in the same way after voters in 1994 approved a roughly $11.7 million in general obligation bonds for a project estimated to cost $15.5 million. Adjusted for inflation, the West Homer bonds would be about $20 million today and the total cost $25.4 million.
“If it (the bond) doesn’t go through, this school will have to be built anyway,” Seaton said. “This borough cannot have these conditions for these students. In that case, you would have to bond for the entire $15 million.”
As several people at Thursday’s meeting pointed out, both the borough and the school district are prohibited from directly promoting the project or a certain vote on the bond proposition. Borough code restricts any information about the project published by the borough to be purely informational, said Brenda Ahlberg, community and fiscal projects manager for the borough.
Those curious about the proposed project can visit www.kpb.us/kselo for information on the proposed new school site, the bond proposition ballot language, and how the borough arrived at its project plan based on isolation and transportation issues.
Other individuals who are restricted in what they can say publicly about the proposed project include assembly members, members of the borough government and staff, and those employed by the school district. To that end, a community outreach group has been formed to handle outreach and promotion of the project. It will be headed by Tim Whip, the former regional principal for Kachemak Selo and Razdolna Schools. Since he retired last year, he is not restricted from promoting the measure, and has four years experience with the school.
Community members like Reutov remain hopeful. Several made their way toward a registrar at one end of the room after Thursday’s meeting in order to get registered to vote.
“I don’t doubt it. I feel like it’s going to happen,” Reutov said. “I never actually gave up. It’s been 15 years, 16 years now? So we’ve kept on going.”