Water pools in a track and field long jump sandpit at Nikiski Middle/High School on Monday, Sept. 19, 2022, in Nikiski, Alaska. The track is one of several projects in a bond package Kenai Peninsula voters will consider during the Oct. 4 municipal election next month. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)

Water pools in a track and field long jump sandpit at Nikiski Middle/High School on Monday, Sept. 19, 2022, in Nikiski, Alaska. The track is one of several projects in a bond package Kenai Peninsula voters will consider during the Oct. 4 municipal election next month. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)

‘Critical needs’: Nikiski athletes await upgrade

Funding for long-delayed school projects on Oct. 4 ballot

Editor’s note: This article is the first of a five-part series spotlighting conditions in Kenai Peninsula Borough School District schools. A bond package on the Oct. 4 municipal election ballot would fund 10 projects affecting 13 borough schools to address some of the district’s infrastructure issues.

While Nikiski students wait for their warbled track to emerge from winter’s snowpack each year, they can be found running through the hallways. When it comes to the beginning and end of the spring sports season, Nikiski students are at the mercy of Mother Nature.

That’s because of the location of the school’s track and field at the bottom of a hill, surrounded by trees. The bowl-like configuration means little sunlight reaches the field, where snow and water collect atop a track riddled with cracks and ice heaves and a grass field that’s increasingly difficult to maintain.

The overhaul of Nikiski Middle/High School’s track and field is one of 10 projects in a $65.5 million school improvement bond package that Kenai Peninsula voters will consider during the Oct. 4 municipal election.

The district last fall identified $420 million worth of maintenance, including $166 million worth of “critical needs.” Many of the projects represent deferred maintenance, or projects that have been put off for an extended period of time.

The project list would affect 13 of the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District’s 42 schools.

Seward High School would also get a new track and field through the bond package as a way to address problems similar to those experienced by Nikiski. Per a description of bond projects prepared for the KPBSD Board of Education earlier this year, the track and field projects at Nikiski Middle/High and Seward High schools would cost about $4.5 million.

The project scope would include removing the fields’ existing sod, excavating and backfilling the space, installing drainage tile and installing a turf field with sand and rubber infill. The artificial turf, school documents say, would allow users to access the field for a longer period of time and could sustain more use than natural turf fields.

Nikiski Middle/High School Principal Shane Bostic said that the school’s track, which dates back to the 1980s, has not been resurfaced in the 12 years he’s worked at the school. The current state of the track, he said, makes it unsafe to run on, costs a lot of money to maintain and makes Nikiski athletes less prepared than their peers when it comes to certain sports.

The configuration of the school’s current track and field, where the high school football team also plays, is such that it is located at the bottom of a bowl-shaped space. The bleachers, on the south end of the field, are built into the hillside, which slopes down to the track. That layout, combined with a lack of sunlight, means it takes longer than it should for snow and ice to clear.

Per the Alaska School Activities Association, Nikiski’s spring activities, including track and field and soccer, are supposed to have their first practices on March 6, with the first contest on March 17. Bostic said students last year weren’t able to use the track straightaways until the middle of May. A photo taken on April 1 shows multiple feet of snow on the field and a slushy track.

“It’s tough to get grass ready by mid-May, when it was covered in 6 (to) 8 feet of snow and has an ice layer,” Bostic said. “We were able to hold regions (for soccer), but it didn’t feel real good to us to not have a facility that we could necessarily be proud of.”

When students cannot use the track and field to practice, Bostic said they run in the school hallways, usually for about a month and a half. That not only deprives them of the experience of running on a real track, he said, but also contributes to higher rates of injuries, such as shin splints.

The safety of a consistent surface and cost savings associated with minimal upkeep are among the benefits of having artificial turf, Bostic said. Kenai Central, Soldotna and Homer high schools already have artificial turf fields.

The City of Kenai will help plow Nikiski’s track and field, but the location still generally is not conducive to the track season. Bostic said it’s not uncommon for students to arrive at a track meet and not know how certain distances correspond to laps around a track.

“When (students) go to a track meet, sometimes that’s the first time they’ve ever been on a track,” Bostic said, adding that it contributes to disparities between Nikiski athletes and athletes from other schools.

The track’s long jump sand pits, which on Sept. 19 were filled with grass and water and demarcated with an orange traffic cone, are also “unusable,” Bostic said. The school relies on what Bostic called an “antiquated and dangerous” system for getting the water out and said it’s “just kind of fruitless” to repaint the track lines.

Moreover, Bostic said it’s not just students and athletes who use the track and field space. Like some other KPBSD’s facilities, the space is frequently enjoyed by community members for recreational purposes, such as walking, running and bike riding. It’s also located near the community trail network.

“It’s kind of a center point,” Bostic said. “As it degrades and becomes less safe. I’ve noticed less people are using it.”

If voters approve the bond package next month, Nikiski’s track and field would be relocated to what the school community refers to as the “upper fields.” The upper fields, where the school’s soccer team currently plays, is at the top of the hill near the school building. Bostic said that means it gets a lot more sunlight and is more accessible for maintenance like snow removal.

“(It will) melt off a lot earlier too, because down there in the hole, it just doesn’t get the sunlight,” Bostic said. “ … Moving the facility would be a huge advantage for being able to use it a little bit longer in the fall and then a lot earlier in the spring.”

If the bond package doesn’t pass, Bostic said there’s not much more the school can do to mitigate the problems the track and field currently experience. The school has cut slats in the wood surrounding the track to facilitate drainage and brings in a sump pump as needed to pump water off of the space. They’ve patched cracks caused by frost heaves and blown snow off the space.

“I don’t think there is, like, a real solution,” Bostic said. “You just have Mother Nature kind of working against you.”

Bostic said that in addition to providing better and more equitable sports opportunities for Nikiski students, a usable track and field space is important for building community across the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District’s 42 schools.

“I think that builds community within the district,” Bostic said. “You know, we’re not just Nikiski, we’re not just Homer, we’re not just Seward — we’re the KPBSD, and we try to work together. Our kids get to build relationships.”

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.

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

Water pools on a warped track at Nikiski Middle/High School on Monday, Sept. 19, 2022, in Nikiski, Alaska. The track is one of several projects in a bond package Kenai Peninsula voters will consider during the Oct. 4 municipal election next month. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)

Water pools on a warped track at Nikiski Middle/High School on Monday, Sept. 19, 2022, in Nikiski, Alaska. The track is one of several projects in a bond package Kenai Peninsula voters will consider during the Oct. 4 municipal election next month. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)

A crack warps the track at Nikiski Middle/High School on Monday, Sept. 19, 2022, in Nikiski, Alaska. The track is one of several projects in a bond package Kenai Peninsula voters will consider during the Oct. 4 municipal election next month. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)

A crack warps the track at Nikiski Middle/High School on Monday, Sept. 19, 2022, in Nikiski, Alaska. The track is one of several projects in a bond package Kenai Peninsula voters will consider during the Oct. 4 municipal election next month. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)

Water pools on a warped track at Nikiski Middle/High School on Monday, Sept. 19, 2022, in Nikiski, Alaska. The track is one of several projects in a bond package Kenai Peninsula voters will consider during the Oct. 4 municipal election next month. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)

Water pools on a warped track at Nikiski Middle/High School on Monday, Sept. 19, 2022, in Nikiski, Alaska. The track is one of several projects in a bond package Kenai Peninsula voters will consider during the Oct. 4 municipal election next month. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)

A crack splits a warped track at Nikiski Middle/High School on Monday, Sept. 19, 2022, in Nikiski, Alaska. The track is one of several projects in a bond package Kenai Peninsula voters will consider during the Oct. 4 municipal election next month. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)

A crack splits a warped track at Nikiski Middle/High School on Monday, Sept. 19, 2022, in Nikiski, Alaska. The track is one of several projects in a bond package Kenai Peninsula voters will consider during the Oct. 4 municipal election next month. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)

Fencing surrounds the upper fields at Nikiski Middle/High School on Monday, Sept. 19, 2022. The field is the proposed relocation site of the school’s track and field, which is part of a bond package Kenai Peninsula Borough voters will consider next month. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)

Fencing surrounds the upper fields at Nikiski Middle/High School on Monday, Sept. 19, 2022. The field is the proposed relocation site of the school’s track and field, which is part of a bond package Kenai Peninsula Borough voters will consider next month. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)

Nikiski Middle/High School Principal Shane Bostic stands near a track and field long jump sand pit on Monday, Sept. 19, 2022, in Nikiski, Alaska. The track is one of several projects in a bond package Kenai Peninsula voters will consider during the Oct. 4 municipal election next month. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)

Nikiski Middle/High School Principal Shane Bostic stands near a track and field long jump sand pit on Monday, Sept. 19, 2022, in Nikiski, Alaska. The track is one of several projects in a bond package Kenai Peninsula voters will consider during the Oct. 4 municipal election next month. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)

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