The Kenai Peninsula Borough’s Regular Municipal Election is about a month away, and a proposition on the ballot will ask voters to pay about $5.4 million for a new school in Kachemak Selo near the head of Kachemak Bay. The Russian Old Believer village’s school is in such poor shape, it’s no longer up to code.
But the clock is ticking. A state grant that will pay for a majority of the project is set to expire next year. Public officials pushed residents at a community meeting Thursday to promote the proposition because at this point, they say there’s no plan B.
There were about as many school administrators and elected officials as residents gathering in one of three Kachemak Selo school buildings. Leeza Reutov was one of the roughly ten residents attending. She has three school-aged kids, and she’s fairly confident the proposition will pass.
“I hope it does," she said. “I mean, I'm pretty up there, pretty high [hopes]."
Her kids have done some outreach to educate people about the state of the school, and she may get involved as well.
“Maybe I'll try; I'll do something,” she said. “I don't know what.
The bond would tax property owners $4.95 per $100,000 of assessed property value. Representative Paul Seaton reminded the community that state funding for the project, about $10 million, is time sensitive. If the borough doesn’t provide the match required by next year, it will disappear.
“So this program that has $10 million coming up-front from the state is the best deal that can be anticipated from state reimbursement for this needed school that the borough is going to be required to do," he said.
If the borough isn’t able to come up with a match, it could apply for an extension. But state officials might not extend the deadline, and if they don’t, the borough could be stuck with funding nearly all or most of the roughly $15.5 million project.
That could be a major challenge for the borough, which has been trying to find a way to solve its budget woes. If the borough doesn’t provide a new school in a timely manner, Seaton said the matter could wind up in court.
“That would probably be a court decision, but you can't house on a long-term basis, kids in an unsafe facility," Seaton said. “They have to meet adequacy across the state and this doesn't matter whether it's in villages or where are you are, you have to meet certain standards in the state. So that would remain to be seen, but it would be a responsibility of the borough.”
Local officials, like Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Charlie Pierce, say they are going all in on the proposition.
“We don’t [have another plan],” said Pierce. “We’ll consider that after the October [ballot]."
Borough and school district administrators say their hands are somewhat tied when it comes to promoting the proposition, and they say that’s where K-Selo residents come in.
They encouraged residents to educate voters, most of whom have never been to the remote village, about why it needs a new school or why its students can’t attend other schools in the area. Several residents did express interest in mounting a public education campaign, but they may be facing an uphill battle.
In recent years, bonds and tax proposals have faced stiff opposition with many failing at the ballot box. However, residents were reminded that Seward faced a similar battle when it successfully passed a bond for Seward Middle School.
Borough assembly member Willy Dunne said K-Selo residents can replicate that success.
“You know, we cannot promote the bond but you can and you must,” he said. “It's up to the community to help educate the public. The borough is helping educate the public on a factual basis, but it's up to the community to help promote the vote."
Tim Whip, the former principal of K-Selo and Razdolna schools is organizing a public outreach group in the village. Village residents like Reutov signed up to be a part of that effort.
Despite her confidence in the village pushing the proposition across the finish line, she said she is a little worried about what happens if voters say no.
“I don't know," she said. "We'll just continue teaching them here if we could. If not, I don't know. Maybe move out."
What Reutov and the village’s outreach effort will look like isn’t quite clear, but with election day quickly approaching on Oct. 2, the group will need to mobilize its efforts quickly.