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Borough will use its own budget to fund new Kachemak Selo School

Renee Gross

In early October, voters on the Kenai Peninsula passed a $65 million bond to fund deferred maintenance at public schools across the district. But one critical project was notably missing from that package: a plan to build a new school in the Russian Old Believer community of Kachemak Selo.

The school has long been in a dilapidated state. And the district has been pursuing a match for a state grant to build a new school for years. This year, the district does have the funding it needs to build a new school — it’s just getting those funds elsewhere.

Made up of three buildings in the small Old Believer village at the southern end of the Kenai Peninsula’s road system, the Kachemak Selo School is difficult to access. Getting there requires driving on a dirt trail and on the beach, which the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District said has limited maintenance there in the past.

As a result, the school’s buildings are deep in disrepair. District Superintendent Clayton Holland said one of the buildings is in such bad condition that students can’t go inside in the winter, because there are holes in the ceiling and snow gets inside.

He said that’s a real problem — and something voters on the more populated parts of the peninsula might not see.

“We have students across this whole vast district, and every one of them is ours, they’re all ours, they all impact us,” Holland said. “You know, on the peninsula, we’re all one, and we always have to remember that.”

Ten years ago, the K-Selo community petitioned the district to build an entirely new school. The district considered options other than rebuilding the school, including paving the road and even building a gondola so that students could be transported to another school, but these were determined to not be viable after an assessment.

And the district was awarded a $10 million grant from the state to do so five years later, on the condition that it could put up a $5 million match. Borough voters turned down a bond to finance that match in 2018.

Holland said the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly and then-Mayor Charlie Pierce considered including K-Selo in the most recent bond package back in 2021, but decided against it because they worried the bond wouldn’t pass with K-Selo on it. Instead of putting a bond to voters, the borough dipped into its own pockets, putting $3 million from its 2023 budget to rebuild the school.

“During the course of this past year, they did come forward and said with a redesign, that they’d be in favor of moving forward,” he said.

The district and borough put out a bid for an architect last year and commissioned a new design for the school to make it smaller and more affordable than previous plans. The new school, for example, will be just one building.

With those changes, Holland said the borough has been supportive.

“Mayor Pierce [and] the assembly agreed to keep moving forward, basically paying out of pocket from the borough funds, rather than bring it forward to the voters again, which they felt would be defeated,” he said.

Holland said he hasn’t heard any pushback to the new funding plan for K-Selo.

However, he said a widely misunderstood aspect of the issue is that the district does have the responsibility to provide a school to the community. Holland said he’s heard comments in the past suggesting that K-Selo community members just homeschool their children, or send them to virtual school.

He said the school district cannot require parents to homeschool their children, and because the internet is unreliable in K-Selo, and the Russian Old Believer communities generally don’t use as much technology in their culture, those are not viable options.

But on top of that, he said the district has certain legal obligations.

“Currently, they are considered unhoused students, because of the design, and we do have an obligation to build a building there, and I don’t know if people realize all of that,” he said.

There isn’t a timeline yet for the project. Just this past week, core samples were taken at the prospective site of the school to determine if building will be possible there. Those results have not come back yet.

Holland said if the borough can find a suitable location, it may be able to break ground by next summer.

When it comes to the other projects funded by the bond package, some are kicking off this coming spring and summer. The borough will sell the bonds as soon as January.

Riley Board is a Report For America reporter covering rural communities on the central Kenai Peninsula for KDLL.
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