K-Selo sticking point on KPBSD project bond package

The amount of money requested for the project — $5.39 million — reflects the 35% local match the borough would need to provide

The inclusion of a new building for Kachemak-Selo may affect the future of a bond package that would fund 18 other “critical projects” identified by the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District and which was discussed by the district and the Kenai Peninsula Borough at a joint work session on Tuesday.

The status of the project, which would involve replacing K-Selo’s three school buildings, which the district says are in disrepair and out of code compliance, with a single K-12 building, has long been in limbo. KPBSD Planning and Operations Director Kevin Lyon noted during a presentation at the work session that, among other deficiencies, people are not supposed to be inside the three K-Selo buildings when there is snow on the roofs, one of which is noticeably bowing inward.

The school’s elementary building, which was built in 1996, can support 37 students and is currently serving 27. The middle-high building, which was built in 1991, can support 14 students and is currently serving 27.

Alternatives to the construction of a new school that the district has looked at include connecting the community to surrounding areas.

According to a presentation given by Lyon, the district looked at combining Kachemak Selo’s attendance area to an adjacent area, which would eliminate the need for the construction of a new school. The 2001 request to combine, however, was denied by the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development because the area is “geographically separated.”

According to Alaska statute, geographically separated is defined by a lack of year-round, publicly maintained road access to other district schools or a separation of more than 20 road miles from the closest other school in the district.

The village of Kachemak Selo is separated from neighboring Russian Old Believer villages and from the nearest borough-maintained road by a steep, winding switchback that was originally a cattle trail. It is used year round by residents to access the village.

To work around the separation, the district looked at constructing a road from Kachemak-Selo to neighboring communities, however, a feasibility study commissioned by the Kenai Peninsula Borough Road Service Area in September 2012 concluded a “no-build option” after examining three routes out of the community. Safety and liability, environmental impact, construction costs and maintenance costs were all cited as reasons for the no-build conclusion.

The district also looked at constructing a gondola or tram instead of a road, however, the borough also recommended a no-build option because of safety and liability, operational costs and confusion surrounding who would have authority over construction and operation issues. Additionally, the construction of a gondola or tram would not change DEED’s previous decision with regards to the area’s geographic separation.

Lastly, the district looked at operating a tracked bus or other vehicle to connect the community to an access point, however, it was ultimately rejected for the same safety and liability reasons and because it would not change DEED’s decision.

The amount of money requested for the project — $5.39 million — reflects the 35% local match the borough would need to provide in order to receive $10,010,000 for the project from the state. The grant program through which the funds would be received for the project is, as of 2021, the only program available for state participation in educational facility projects, which Lyon said makes it competitive.

Borough Mayor Charlie Pierce and Pierce’s chief of staff, James Baisden, clashed with members of the school board over the project, which they said should not be included in the bond package.

“We need to build a building in K-Selo, I believe that, our heart’s there … but we need to do it smarter; we need to do it the right way,” Pierce said.

Pierce specifically said that the state should give the borough the $10 million “with no strings attached,” for educational repair purposes. Then, he said, the borough could build the K-Selo building and then use whatever is leftover to fix the roof at Homer High School, which the district has identified as one of 19 critical projects and is expected to cost $8,271,734.

Baisden said that including the K-Selo project in the bond package might be viewed as the borough trying to subvert borough voters, who voted against the project as a standalone bond in 2018.

“This body’s going to have to decide whether they want to keep K-Selo in the bond package when it goes forward or whether they want it to be standalone,” Baisden said. “Are you willing to sacrifice the voters looking at what you’re trying to do here and get something over on them and soundly defeat[ing] a bond package that might be needed?”

KPBSD Superintendent John O’Brien, however, said he was “not surprised” that the K-Selo project failed last time because it was presented as a standalone item so borough voters outside of Kachemak-Selo had little reason to support it. Packaging the project with the district’s other critical projects, which would affect 38 of the district’s 42 schools, would give more borough voters a reason to support the bond.

“The question that we need to ask collectively between the Board of Education and the assembly, is, can this bond pass if it benefits 38 schools in every community of this district?” O’Brien asked. “And if we don’t include Kachemak-Selo in this, are you prepared to be sued by the community of Kachemak-Selo and have to pay for this without any help from the state?”

KPBSD Assistant Superintendent of Instructional Support Dave Jones said that if the money being offered by the state is not spent, then it will go away and the borough may face a lawsuit from the residents of K-Selo, which he said has happened in other Alaska communities before.

“With the isolated character of K-Selo, I would say the likelihood of them winning a lawsuit is high because they’re supposed to have a school there and the state’s given us $10 million to do that,” Jones said. “I would tell you that I believe, and I talked to the mayor about this, that in the end of the lawsuit, the borough would be handed the bill for the entire amount of the school, as opposed to having two-thirds of it paid.”

If approved by both the school board and by the borough assembly, the bond would appear on the Oct. 26, 2021 municipal ballot for borough voters to either approve or disapprove. The bond was initially supposed to appear on last October’s ballot, but did not due to COVID. Lyon estimates that the bond for all the projects, if approved, would be $27.80 per $100,000 assessed property value annually.

Reach reporter Ashlyn O’Hara at ashlyn.ohara@peninsulaclarion.com.