Concrete steps effected by spalling lead to the front entrance of Soldotna Elementary School on Friday, Sept. 30, 2022. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)

Concrete steps effected by spalling lead to the front entrance of Soldotna Elementary School on Friday, Sept. 30, 2022. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)

Soldotna Elementary awaits action on approved bond

Almost two years after public OKs bond, borough asking for more time

October will mark two years since more than 60% of Kenai Peninsula Borough voters approved a massive, deferred school maintenance bond package. Through it, voters gave the borough permission to incur up to $65.5 million in debt to pay for deferred maintenance projects at 13 Kenai Peninsula Borough School District facilities.

One of those projects, by far the largest and most expensive on the list, was the reconstruction of Soldotna Elementary School, which serves about 250 students in kindergarten through sixth grade. At the school, little has changed since the election.

Principal Dr. Austin Stevenson says that, if anything, conditions at the school have worsened.

“We’ve had more deterioration, more siding has fallen off (and) more foam’s come off the side,” he said. “We have carpenter ants that have colonized the gym now.”

Conditions at the school were already dire leading up to the Oct. 4, 2022, election. During a tour of the building, which also houses Soldotna Montessori Charter School, Stevenson pointed out watermarked ceiling tiles, saplings growing out of the roof, and visibly crumbling insulation and wood paneling.

The bond loosely paired the Soldotna Elementary School rebuild with reconfiguration of Soldotna Prep School, a facility that currently sits vacant on West Redoubt Avenue. As part of the reconfiguration, Soldotna Montessori Charter School, River City Academy, Connections Homeschool and the school district’s administrative offices would be relocated to the prep school.

The bond identified a $21.5 million price tag for the reconstruction of Soldotna Elementary School and $18.5 million for the reconfiguration of Soldotna Prep School.

After the election, though, Stevenson said the two projects faced setbacks.

Roughly a year after the bond passed, the price of the Soldotna Elementary School rebuild project swelled — from $21.5 million as approved by voters to just under $35 million. The borough attributed the increase to inflation.

The borough’s top job also changed hands multiple times around that time, first after the resignation of former Mayor Charlie Pierce, which was followed by an interim mayorship by Mike Navarre.

Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Peter Micciche became mayor roughly four months after the bond passed and has since questioned whether the project plan described by the bond package is the best way to move forward.

Chiefly, Micciche says the borough doesn’t have enough money to pay for the projects as approved by voters.

“The amount likely would have been adequate had we started constructing a school at the time they wrote at the bond,” Micciche said earlier this month. “By the time the bond passed, it was inadequate. Inflation was exacerbated from that day forward.”

He’s come out against one element of the bond that would relocate KPBSD’s administrative offices to the Soldotna Prep School. The district has said the move was a priority of Pierce in exchange for borough support of the larger bond package.

“We have no intention of moving the (district) administration out,” Micciche said. “This building works for us.”

Before any new school facility can be built, state law requires that an education specification, or “ed spec,” be prepared. The document must describe how the facility will be used and identify proposed physical characteristics, among other things.

The borough last April awarded a contract worth more than $123,000 to Architects Alaska for the Soldotna Elementary ed spec. The borough’s proposal review committee scored Architects Alaska 20 points higher than the other interested firm, Palmer-based Wolf Architecture.

According to Stevenson, the document, dated earlier this year, outlines “several options” for a rebuild and reconfiguration of Soldotna Elementary and Soldotna Prep School, including some proposed by the borough and some proposed by the school district.

The Kenai Peninsula Borough denied a public records request submitted by the Clarion for a copy of the alternative solutions study, citing a legal exemption codified by borough assembly members in April. Micciche said separately that the borough doesn’t release any draft studies.

Micciche said that he had questions about the project submitted by the Clarion to two different department heads forwarded to his office. The borough last summer also discouraged the Clarion from attending a meeting where stakeholders convened to discuss their wants and needs for a new school, for fear that media presence would cause attendees “to feel limited on discussion.”

Micciche in an interview with the Clarion said he would like to see KPBSD take advantage of its “underutilized” existing buildings when considering where to move programs. He pointed to Skyview Middle School and Redoubt Elementary as examples.

“We are overbuilt in schools in the area,” he said. “Every other district is talking about how to constrict unused square footage so that it’s adequately utilized. A lot of our buildings are underutilized, and it’s all cost.”

Any changes to the projects funded by the 2022 bond, though, would require fresh approval from borough voters. That would mean putting a ballot proposition forward for the borough to get permission to incorporate new schools into the project.

Micciche said it would be feasible to get the data together for a ballot proposition for the upcoming municipal election cycle — the language would need to be finalized by Aug. 6 — but coming to agreement on the long-term vision could take longer.

Of the options presented in the Architects Alaska study, Stevenson said the district favors one that would put Soldotna Montessori, Connections Homeschool and River City Academy in the Soldotna Prep building and keep the district office at its current location. That model would require minimal renovations at the prep school and allow the district to expand its home-school program.

“The alternative solutions study was commissioned to find out, ‘OK, now that the price has risen, what can we do?” Stevenson said.

One proposed iteration of the Soldotna Prep remodel would allow KPBSD to follow what is sometimes called the “Mat-Su model,” referring to the Matanuska-Susitna School District.

Under that model, a school district creates a central space for home-school students to take shared specialty classes, like music or cooking. In the Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District, Stevenson said they have a multipurpose facility where they offer classes chosen via poll by home-school parents.

“Constantly, they’re bringing in outside vendors to provide intensive classes, whether it be dance, or art, or music, or something else,” he said. “So a home-school family can show up to a physical location, get taught by a teacher under the supervision of the school district.”

Stevenson thinks that type of in-person home-school program could help the district recapture some of the estimated 1,400 school-age children on the Kenai Peninsula attending a home-school program that is not Connections. Bringing those students back to KPBSD is a stated goal of Micciche’s.

Micciche, though, thinks any of the options proposed by Architects Alaska would cost more than is estimated. For that reason, he wants the borough to hire a new firm — that’s independent and “not invested in the prior outcome” — to review the first study and determine whether the estimates are both accurate and meet students’ needs.

“Our proposal is to bring in another designer-slash-architect firm to evaluate the possibilities that have not been involved with the whole process or have spent decades building schools in the Kenai Peninsula Borough,” he said.

Architects Alaska has a long history of designing buildings in the borough. The firm is behind, among others, Seward Middle School, the Challenger Learning Center in Kenai and is designing at least two other projects in the 2022 school maintenance bond.

Micciche on Monday said that the school district hasn’t yet responded to the borough’s proposed reevaluation of the Architects Alaska study.

“No one should be embarrassed that they didn’t bond adequately,” he said.

Kenai Peninsula Borough Superintendent Clayton Holland said Monday that he doesn’t think the bond was inadequate, but that having more time to fully flesh out different projects and strategies would have been ideal.

“I don’t think there’s anything inadequate about what we did, or what’s out there,” Holland said.

The school district, he said, is open to another review of the options and will ultimately work with the borough to find a solution. Their top concern is about adding things to the project scope that were not included in the bond package, which would require a separate vote.

“If another architectural design tool is helpful to get this process going, that’s fine,” he said.

Stevenson said the borough was invited to speak at a recent meeting of Soldotna Elementary School’s site council. Micciche attended, Stevenson said, and asked the group to give the borough until the end of the summer to figure things out.

Stevenson described the council, which is made up of staff and parents, as being “confused and disappointed.” The group is in a tough spot, he said, because they “don’t really have any power.”

“We just have the power of suggestion,” he said. “I don’t know what else we can do, really, in terms of advocacy. I’ve tried my best to move it through as best we can.”

More should be considered, he said, than just dollars and cents. For example, any plan must consider Soldotna Elementary’s disproportionately high number of special education and intensive needs students, who need specialized classrooms.

Soldotna Elementary School students play soccer on Friday, Sept. 30, 2022 in Soldotna, Alaska. The Kenai Peninsula Borough School District offices overlook the field. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)

Soldotna Elementary School students play soccer on Friday, Sept. 30, 2022 in Soldotna, Alaska. The Kenai Peninsula Borough School District offices overlook the field. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)

Exterior insulation corrodes at Soldotna Elementary School on Friday, Sept. 30, 2022 in Soldotna, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)

Exterior insulation corrodes at Soldotna Elementary School on Friday, Sept. 30, 2022 in Soldotna, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)

Paint chips on the exterior of school buildings at Soldotna Elementary School on Friday, Sept. 30, 2022 in Soldotna, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)

Paint chips on the exterior of school buildings at Soldotna Elementary School on Friday, Sept. 30, 2022 in Soldotna, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)

Soldotna Elementary School Principal Dr. Austin Stevenson points out corroded insulation outside of the school building on Friday, Sept. 30, 2022 in Soldotna, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)

Soldotna Elementary School Principal Dr. Austin Stevenson points out corroded insulation outside of the school building on Friday, Sept. 30, 2022 in Soldotna, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)

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