Borough approves K-Selo school bonds

Voters will get to decide the future of a new school for the students of Kachemak Selo in the fall.

The Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly unanimously approved an ordinance to send a proposal to the October ballot asking voters to take on $5.45 million of general obligation bonds to pay for a new school building in the Russian Old Believer village of Kachemak Selo. The bonds would be used as a match against a state grant of $10.01 million, about 65 percent of the total cost. The total estimated cost for the construction is $15.46 million. If approved, the increase would be $4.36 on each $100,000 of property values.

The new school has been in the works for a long time. The Kenai Peninsula Borough School District first began investigating the possibility of a new school in 2011, but hangups on funding, access, design and location have delayed the project for years.

Borough Mayor Charlie Pierce’s administration requested the borough assembly to approved the bonds as a match for the state funds, which were appropriated in 2016. If not used, the state grant will expire.

The Kenai Peninsula Borough School District’s Board of Education backed the project at its June 4 meeting 7-1, with only board member Dan Castimore opposed.

“On a $300,000, $400,000 house, you would only pay $15,” said school board president Penny Vadla in testimony to the assembly. “To me, when I go around this district and I see what we’re doing with these kids and how we’re providing a quality education whether they’re in a schoolhouse that has 20 kids or they’re in a schoolhouse that has 500-plus kids, we are providing an individualized education, a quality education that will make a difference in their life like somebody made a difference in our life.”

The school is in significant disrepair and has been for some time. The approximately 50 K-12 students go to school in three converted homes, which have sloped floors, cracked walls and drafts. The building is substandard enough for the state to consider the students unhoused, said Superintendent Sean Dusek at the meeting.

“If (the buildings) weren’t safe, we wouldn’t have them in there, but they certainly are very sketchy … in terms of a quality learning environment,” he said. “This is an opportunity for us to put in place a higher standard of facility for these students to learn.”

However, the district can’t simply require the students to go to Homer for school. Unlike the neighboring Russian Old Believer villages of Razdolna and Voznesenka, Kachemak Selo does not have a safe road connecting it to the rest of the highway system on the peninsula. A narrow, unpaved path traverses a steep bluff in a set of switchbacks, but standard cars or school buses cannot easily make it. Because of its isolation, the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development considers Kachemak Selo its own attendance area and the district has to provide a school.

Families from Kachemak Selo have testified in favor of the bonds, saying the school is dangerous and the students fear it will collapse. However, people also testified against the bond package at the meeting Tuesday, saying the cost of the school is too much for a small community and the borough should not raise property taxes to pay for it.

Nikiski resident Jesse Bjorkman said the voters and borough have to weigh the cost of the school against the benefit, based on whether the community will continue to grow and contribute to the peninsula.

“If the case can be made, and it’s plausible that it can, I think the answer’s yes,” he said. “If it can’t, I worry about this in the future.”

Fritz Creek resident Debbie Speakman said she wanted a chance to vote on it and support it.

“These kids live down a road that I won’t go onto in the summer,” she said. “I would walk down it, but even that’s dangerous. These students deserve an education, and even more importantly, I deserve the right to vote on it.”

Assembly member Kelly Cooper noted that the borough doesn’t get a say in the size of the school — that is prescribed based on the number of students by the Department of Education and Early Development.

The borough owns the physical school facilities, though in Kachemak Selo’s case, the school district leases buildings that belong to the village. Dusek noted that the Kachemak Selo school isn’t the only one in need of repairs in the district.

“This will not be the last time you will hear from the school district in bonding situations,” he said. “We currently have over $30 million backlog just from maintenance on aging facilities. Our students are falling behind with substandard schools … we are getting close to over 40 years on the average age of our buildings.”

The proposal will appear to all qualified voters in the Kenai Peninsula Borough in the Oct. 2 election.

Reach Elizabeth Earl at eearl@peninsulaclarion.com.

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