Kachemak Selo's school is beyond repair. The borough may ask tax payers to help pay for a new one

Feb 8, 2018

One of three buildings that make up Kachemak Selo School.
Credit Daysha Eaton, KBBI News

Kachemak Selo, a small Russian Old Believer village at the head of Kachemak Bay on the Kenai Peninsula, has been dealing with deteriorating school buildings for years. The school, built about 30 years ago, has cracks in the walls and students have testified at the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly that they feel they’re at risk every time they enter the buildings. The state dedicated a little over $10 million for a new school about two years ago, but the borough hasn’t had the money to fund the rest of the roughly $16 million project. But the borough may ask tax payers to pick up the rest of the tab.

Kachemak Selo’s three school buildings have been in poor shape for years. The buildings are sinking into the ground and have serious foundation problems. Space is limited and cracks in the walls fail to protect students and staff from cold weather. Sophomore Antonin Murachev told the Kenai Borough Assembly Tuesday that a large earthquake in January made things worse.

“As you all know and heard many times our school is in bad shape,” he said at the meeting. “Most of us kids have formed the theory that the walls will collapse if another earthquake hit us based on the fact that they are already barely holding themselves together.”

This desperate tone is something borough Community and Fiscal Projects Manager Brenda Ahlberg understands.

“It’s definitely been a long arduous process,” she said. “I would imagine that our residents in K-Selo are probably feeling like it's taking a little bit longer than it needs to be, and I completely appreciate that.

Ahlberg started working with the borough nine years ago and she said even then, the schools were in need of repair. But getting to the isolated village makes logistics difficult.

“Given there is no road to haul large equipment or trucks, we looked at other aspects of building,” she said. “We looked at even transportation alternatives that included a gondola. We looked at building alternatives that included a floating school. Because of the fact that we knew this was going to be a very costly construction project.”

Building the school isn’t the only hurdle. Funding for the project is also in limbo.  The state dedicated over $10 million back in 2016, but the borough has to throw in over $5 million of its own money into the project. That’s funding that Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Charlie Pierce said it doesn’t have.

“Obviously at this time with our fiscal challenges that we're facing, we do not have five million dollars sitting in an account that we can apply to this project” he said.

On Tuesday night, Pierce said that he wants to go to bond for the borough’s portion of the project, but time may be running out.

Funding from the state is set to expire in 2019 if the borough doesn’t come up with its match and use the money. Pierce said he wants to put the proposition to voters this fall in order to avoid the issue, but there is hope the Legislature will extend the borough’s deadline.

A bill that would give the borough until 2021 to come up with funding has passed through the House and is now in the Senate.

The bill would also give the borough an opportunity to look at other possibilities if the assembly doesn’t approve the bond proposition or voters shoot the proposition down.

Ahlberg said the borough is keeping both of those scenarios in mind.

"Well, then we got to go back to the drawing board and that means working with the state legislators and how can we get additional supplemental (money) for the match," she said.

The borough will meet next Friday with residents to talk about site selection for the new school. Ahlberg expects the proposition to be introduced to the assembly in May. In order to get the bond onto October’s ballot, the assembly will have to approve any proposition the borough administration comes up with by June.