Editor’s note: This is the final part in a series spotlighting conditions in Kenai Peninsula Borough School District schools. The series was published by the Kenai Peninsula Clarion last week, ahead of a vote on a bond package that would fund 10 projects affecting 13 borough schools to address some of the district’s infrastructure issues. Unofficial results from the Oct. 4 municipal election show the bond package leading in votes.
Soldotna Elementary School was built nine years before astronauts walked on the moon, four years before the Beatles came to America and three years before the assassination of John F. Kennedy. It’s a place where trees grow on the roof, the sounds of footsteps echo through the halls and renovations are stalled by the age of the building.
Reconstruction of the school — built in 1960 — is also the priciest item in a $65.5 million bond package that Kenai Peninsula voters will decide the fate of come Tuesday. As part of the reconstruction, estimated to cost about $21.5 million, the current school would be torn down and a new, second-story building would be constructed in its place, closer to Binkley Street.
Soldotna Montessori Charter School, which currently shares building space with the elementary school, would be relocated, along with River City Academy, Connections Homeschool and the KPBSD offices, to the currently vacant Soldotna Prep School building on W. Redoubt Avenue.
When it comes to evidence of the work needed at the school, the evidence is, literally, on the wall.
A snake of red pipes winds around the top of the school, transmitting natural gas to heat the space. Soldotna Elementary School Principal Austin Stevenson said that he has not encountered another school which is heated in the same way and said he had to receive special training upon becoming principal to ensure he knew how to handle the pipeline network in the event of an emergency.
In the gym, which Soldotna Elementary shares with Soldotna Montessori, metal panels drilled into the wall prevent the use of lunchroom tables that fit into the wall. Stevenson described those tables as obsolete to the point of not being repairable and said the school uses other tables — filed away into wherever they will fit — instead.
Someone looking at Soldotna Montessori from Soldotna Elementary’s windows might be surprised to see the upper reaches of saplings poking up from the roof. Stevenson said one of the school’s annual rituals is to pull up the trees that have started growing into the ceiling via seed deposits that blow onto the roof from nearby trees. Those saplings, when left to their own devices, will root into the roof and cause damage to the school’s ceilings.
The school’s southwestern playground can be seen from the George A. Navarre building — where the KPBSD offices are located. The playground area and land closer to Binkley Street is where a new Soldotna Elementary School building would be located, if the current building is taken down.
A walk around the building revealed severely chipped paint, classroom windows that face the wall of one of the building’s other additions and wood paneling that is falling off of the building. That paneling is particularly susceptible to weather due to the lack of eaves on the top of the building.
At the base of the building, broken insulation has pushed through the soil. That insulation, Stevenson said, doesn’t go deep enough into the ground to pass the frost line. When the ground freezes, the insulation tightens up and when the ground thaws it sinks back into the ground. That flexing is responsible for the rusting and cracked insulation panels, some of which are covered in sidewalk chalk drawings.
Traffic flow is also a problem. The school is located off of Park Avenue, close to where the street intersects with the Kenai Spur Highway. Stevenson said he doesn’t allow staff to use the parking lot in front of the school to keep the space as clear as possible for school drop-off and pickup. Staff help the students navigate around cars and school buses.
The school’s concrete steps suffer from spalling, which previous efforts have been made to patch, and the school’s ramp entrance is not wide enough to accommodate the width of modern wheelchairs and the accessories that usually come with the equipment. Stevenson said students using larger wheelchairs must enter through a separate entrance that can accommodate them.
Because Soldotna Elementary is not built on a concrete slab, as is common practice for modern commercial school buildings, the sounds of people moving throughout the building are loud. Students can have conversations on opposite sides of residential-grade walls with little difficulty.
The school’s ceiling panels are solid and filled with insulation, which is what Stevenson said explains the various pipes and fixtures that are attached to different parts of the walls. The school’s internet cables must be run in the crawlspace under the school because there is no room in the ceiling, which he said causes slow connectivity issues.
“It would cost less to build a new school with a concrete floor than to try to turn this into a concrete floor,” Stevenson said. “You couldn’t really build a new school on top of this foundation because it doesn’t meet modern standards anyway.”
An ongoing problem for the school’s day-to-day operations is how cost prohibitive it is to make any renovations, which Stevenson said is because the building is so far out of code.
The building predates a requirement for an in-school sprinkler system, such as those that deploy in the event of a fire. To install a new sprinkler system, Stevenson, would be cost prohibitive — the district currently estimates $10.34 per square foot. Until such a system is installed, no substantial renovations may be made to the building.
There’s no set definition for what constitutes a major renovation, however. In the meantime, Stevenson said they’ve learned to work around that caveat. In instances where the school has needed to build a wall, such as to accommodate intensive needs students, they instead build a partition that stops just shy of the ceiling. Partitions, Stevenson said, are not considered substantial renovations.
“The limitations we have because (the school is) out of code require us to come up with solutions that other schools wouldn’t have to come up with,” Stevenson said.
In pitching the need for a new Soldotna Elementary School to voters who don’t live in Soldotna, Stevenson said that the benefit for all borough voters will be the money the borough saves by not having to continue investing in building’s failing fixtures.
“Everybody pays taxes to the borough and, by constructing a new school, will realize savings,” Stevenson said. “Ultimately, when it comes down to building the school, the question is, do you want to maintain a school that’s gonna be expensive and have a low rate of return? Or do you want to build a new school that will be, in the long run, saving you money?”
More information about the school improvement bond up for consideration next month can be found on the Kenai Peninsula Borough website at kpb.us/mayor/prop2.