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.”