The State of Alaska will fund its share of the K-12 replacement school for staff and 63 unhoused students in the Russian Old Believer community of Kachemak Selo. Construction is still uncertain.
The Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly has yet to set aside the remaining portion of estimated costs, and planning is in its infancy, said Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Mike Navarre, who is requesting the state allow more flexibility than usual for the project.
“We want to explore some options that might result in lower construction costs and may need to ask the state for approval to deviate from the specific requirements,” he said.
Navarre said he has spoken with Gov. Bill Walker’s office regarding Navarre’s intentions and believes this project could set a precedent for rural school construction in Alaska.
What flexibility the borough receives will determine the school’s scope including the size of the facility, which will unify instruction of elementary and secondary students under one roof. The new school is planned to be 16,000 square feet. The current school operates with only roughly 4,000 square feet and Navarre is hoping to reduce the required amount of space.
The school consists of three separate buildings, each with significant safety hazards detailed in a 2014 condition survey, including potential exposure to toxic cleaning materials, slanting and sinking foundations and light fixtures with no coverings, among many other issues.
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.
“However, each type of school gets supplemental square footage based on a formula,” he said.
Navarre’s hesitations about the associated expenditures are not unique.
“The fact that we got the money doesn’t guarantee anything at this point,” he said.
Assembly member Brent Johnson said he wants to work with the school district and community before making a decision, but said the outcome does not justify the price tag at this point.
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 65 percent— about $10.9 million — coming from the state and more than $5 million coming from the borough.
“We need to make wiser use of our funds than that,” Johnson said.
He said it costs too much to be spending per student on building a new facility. There is no magic number he is looking for. Johnson said he wants the borough to assess every option that could make the numbers as low as possible, but understands there are standards required by the state for all school buildings that will run the price up.
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.”
Kelly said he respects Navarre’s approach to cutting costs, in seeing what other options there may be “from what current standards dictate.”
Navarre said planning discussions began Wednesday at the borough. No timeline has been developed because too many variables still exist. 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.
Fry said the state’s agreement with school districts and boroughs are good for five years, but that certain circumstances can warrant extensions.
The board will hold a public worksession Monday at the borough assembly chambers to discuss direction of the project.
Reach Kelly Sullivan at firstname.lastname@example.org.