State grant to build school in K-Selo extended

Mayor considering ‘new direction’ for school facility maintenance

The borough and school district still have their eyes on a new school in Kachemak-Selo. A request to extend a state grant to help fund much of the school’s construction was approved by the Department of Education and Early Development. The grant previously had a deadline of June 2021.

The state offered the borough and Kenai Peninsula Borough School District a second extension on the grant money to build a school, which will last until June 29, 2024, Mayor Charlie Pierce said at the Sept. 15 Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly meeting.

“In the meantime, we still have a community at the end of the road with some pretty serious building, school conditions that should be concerning to all of us,” Pierce said at the assembly meeting. “It would be my motivation here to try and address this from a different angle.”

School districts and boroughs around the state who receive similar state Department of Education and Early Development for school building funds are subject to a 35% match, meaning boroughs and districts must pay for about a third of the project’s cost, with the state grant funds making up the rest.

“That match is a bit challenging,” Pierce said.

He said he’s working with the school board and superintendent in hopes of attracting other school districts in the state to approach the Legislature to change the education department’s grant to a “designated legislative grant,” which he said would waive the borough’s match requirement. Pierce said the borough would then be free to take the state’s $10 million grant and build a structure for students and staff in K-Selo.

“We’ve heard, yeah, ‘you have to meet certain specs,’” Pierce said. “The most challenging is square footage per student … what I’ve heard is the community is really more interested in having a community-type building that they could still provide a high level of standards, build the building per energy specs for today, but have a smaller footprint, if you will.”

Pierce requested an extension on the grant earlier this year, when the district and borough decided to push back a $30 million school construction bond to next year’s election cycle, with a bond package intended for the fall of 2021.

The $29,940,000 bond proposal tackled 19 school projects considered a “priority and critical to maintaining key infrastructure for both community and educational needs,” a Feb. 4 school board resolution said. The biggest project in the proposed bond package would be the construction of a new school in Kachemak Selo, which could take advantage of more than $10 million in state funds, if the borough takes advantage of the state grant.

At the assembly meeting, Pierce said that there is a “group of folks that believe that with K-Selo included in this, and without any plan changes, the voters probably aren’t interested in building a $15, $16 million school in K-Selo.”

“I believe right now, without a real comprehensive plan or a study done on our schools, putting a bond together — throwing K-Selo in there, throwing a little bit of something in all the communities in hopes they’ll respond and they’ll approve it because they’re getting something too — is, I don’t believe a responsible approach,” Pierce said.

K-Selo has been in need of a new school for nearly 10 years. In 2011, the village petitioned the school board for a new facility. In 2016, the state appropriated $10,010,000 for construction of the school, but in order to proceed the borough needed to provide a match.

The state’s grant has already been extended once. In the October 2018 election, peninsula voters rejected a measure that would have funded the $5.5 million to build a new school in Kachemak-Selo. In early 2019, the borough asked the department for a seven-year extension on the grant, but only received two additional years to use the $10 million in matching funds.

The current school in Kachemak-Selo is made up of three borough-leased buildings and serves about 46 students. The borough and district have said the current school has deteriorated to the point that it is no longer viable as an educational facility.

Pierce said the district and borough administration will be discussing possibilities in the coming weeks.

Victoria Petersen is a freelance writer living in Anchorage and a former Peninsula Clarion reporter.

• By Victoria Petersen, For the Peninsula Clarion