Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Mike Navarre hopes to set a precedent for construction in rural areas starting with the K-12 Kachemak Selo replacement school the legislature agreed to fund this session.
Navarre will look to lessen or waive the local match required to receive state support entirely, and for flexibility on building size standards.
“It requires a 35 percent match,” he said at a worksession Monday with the Kenai Peninsula Board of Education. “I don’t think I can get either the voters or the assembly to approve $5 million to build a school in a rural area.”
Navarre said he has already had discussions at the state level with Alaska Office of Management and Budget Director Pat Pitney.
“We want to meet the facility needs and if we can do it in a more cost effective manner that is very positive,” Pitney said.
Everything is conceptual and in the very beginning stages right now, Pitney said. Her hope is to find options that are the most effective use of state, borough and community resources and that can extend to future similar buildings in Alaska’s off-road school sites.
Pitney said Navarre’s pitch appeals now because of the state’s financial hurt.
If the pilot program does have long-term implications for other state projects, Navarre said he believes the borough could receive a waiver for the local contribution.
The project, which sat at the top of the Alaska Department of Early Education and Development’s FY17 construction grant money list for the past two years, is expected to cost nearly $17 million total with roughly $10.9 million coming from the state and more than $5 million expected from the borough.
Assembly member Brent Johnson said he wants to see what collaborations with the state, school district and community will yield before making a decision, but said the outcome does not justify the price tag at this point.
“We need to make wiser use of our funds than that,” Johnson said.
He said the cost is too much per student to build a new facility.
Board of Education member John Kelly, who represents residents in Homer, Nanwalek, Port Graham, Seldovia and the three Russian Old Believer villages on East End Road, said he has heard people say they are shocked costs to construct public facilities are so high.
“That is the reality of it,” Kelly said.
Education is mandated by the state, and that comes with the obligation to provide a safe place for students to learn, which the students and staff at Kachemak Selo lack, he said. Kelly said he believes anyone questioning that fact should visit the village.
“We need a school out there. There is no doubt in my mind those kids need to be served in a proper facility,” Kelly said. “…There is bound to be some disparity with an off-the-road school, but the differences are staggering.”
The current school, located in the Russian Old Believer community consists of three separate buildings, each with significant safety hazards detailed in a 2014 condition survey completed by the Kenai Peninsula Borough, including potential exposure to toxic cleaning materials, foundations that slant and are sinking foundations and light fixtures with no covers, among other issues.
What flexibility the borough receives from the state will determine the scope of the project. The new school is planned to be 16,000 square feet. The current school operates with only roughly 4,000 square feet and Navarre hopes to reduce the required amount of space.
For combined elementary and secondary schools in rural areas, 114 square feet of space must be made available per elementary student and 165 square feet per secondary student, said Eric Fry, information officer for the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development.
David Kalugin, mayor of Kachemak Selo, said he and other members of the community will be flexible.
“We did not pick the square footage, that was done to Department of Education guidelines and we had nothing to do with it,” he said. “If it is bigger or smaller but better condition that what we have now I think the community would be ok with it.”
Kalugin, who currently works out of Dillingham, said he did not expect the state would fund the project this year, especially given the fiscal strain the state is under.
“It is hard to believe,” Kalugin said. “We have been waiting a long time for this.”
Kalugin said he supports Navarre’s pursuit to find cheaper avenues to build the new school, and believes the borough could fund its share, but is not sure there is complete support from residents or the borough assembly.
Navarre said planning discussions began Wednesday at the borough. No timeline has been developed because too many variables are still in play. Hopefully a Request for Proposals will be sent out within the next year, as boroughs only have so much time to use the grant money, he said.