By Joseph Robertia
It’s been said that from humble beginnings, great things will grow, and these words appropriately describe the inception of the Kenai Peninsula Borough and school district, as well as Kenai Peninsula College — all of which celebrated their 50th anniversary last week during a barbecue at KPC.
It can be difficult to imagine how far these entities have come and how much the entire area has grown, especially since many current residents are more recent transplants to this area. The landscape was much different in 1964, when only around 12,000 people called the peninsula home, versus the roughly 58,000 living here in 2014.
“Fifty years ago it was a very rural community with only the main highway being paved and most of the other roads gravel. There were no stoplights, because there was a lot less traffic,” said borough Mayor Mike Navarre.
It was black gold that led to much of the growth of this area, he said.
“A big reason why we were finally approved for statehood was because of the Swanson River oil discovery,” Navarre said. “That was an indication, to Congress, that Alaska would have the financial resources to afford some of the costs of government. Of course, that’s what drove the initial growth of the Kenai Peninsula during the 1960s — oil development both on and offshore.”
It took a lot of people to work the oilfields, wellheads and processing centers.
“The population grew pretty fast during the mid to late ’60s and early ’70s, driven by the jobs associated with oil development, including the Swanson River Fields, platforms in Cook Inlet, Union Chemical (Collier/Agrium) fertilizer plant, Phillips LNG plant, Tesoro and related infrastructure (docks and service companies),” Navarre said. “Of course, economic growth spurred population growth and the need for housing developments, schools, airport expansion, the hospital, etc.”
Navarre remembered that when he was in junior high, students were managed in a split shift because the student population exceeded the space available at that time. This swelling of students led to many changes in the school district.
From roughly 2,600 students in a handful of classrooms in 1964, the school district has grown to 8,932 enrolled students in 44 schools covering 25,600 square miles, a land area roughly equivalent to the size of West Virginia.
“When you review the various bits of information that are available about what things were like for our schools 50 years ago, you can quickly discern the KPBSD was a much different district than it is today,” Superintendent Steve Atwater said.
“One of the more telling differences of then and now is that the budget for January until June of 1964 was only $23,000,” he said. “Today, that amount is about what we spend in 20 minutes of a school day.”
While there have been many changes over the years, one constant that has not wavered, according to Atwater, is the consistent level of support for the school district from the borough and, by extension, the people of the Kenai Peninsula.
“Sure, there have been times when the borough assembly has not been fully supportive of the district, and sure there are a few who grumble about the cost of schools. But overall, the people of our borough have backed the school district by passing construction bonds, paying property tax and sales tax, and by expecting excellence from our schools,” he said.
Atwater said that as the district looks toward the next 50 years, the future will be one where students become more dependent on digital content as the grip is loosening on the traditional school structure. The partnership with Kenai Peninsula College — where high school students currently earn dual credit and in some cases graduate from high school with an associate’s degree — will also continue to be nurtured.
Like Atwater, KPC Director Gary Turner spoke about how much the college has grown over the past 50 years due to the support of the borough and its legislators. From a small community college it has grown into a respected postsecondary institution with four locations — the Kenai River Campus in Soldotna, Kachemak Bay Campus in Homer, Resurrection Bay Extension Site in Seward and an Anchorage Extension site.
“Your support is so evident as we look across the parking lot at the Career and Technical Education Center, and across the street at our residence hall. Without your support of these projects and getting them on the (general obligation) bond in 2010, these facilities would never have been built,” he said.
Turner said that KPC now serves nearly 3,000 students each semester, who take more than 15,000 credits. The school itself also now hosts 280 employees, making it one of the largest employers on the peninsula.
“Our economic impact on the peninsula, measured in 2008, was $16 million, and is even greater in 2014. We now enroll more students than the University of Alaska Southeast campus in Juneau and more than the Mat-Su College,” he said.
Like the borough and school district, Turner said that KPC’s success didn’t come without the hard work of many.
“KPC has been successful not only because of its employees, but because of the community support our borough residents have provided us over the last 50 years,” he said. “Our goal over the next 50 years is to continue our upward trajectory and provide an even better institution when we celebrate our 100th anniversary in 2064.”