By Jenny Neyman
In a fiscal climate of cutbacks and reined-in spending, Gov. Walker’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2017 does still include a big-ticket capital project on the Kenai Peninsula — $10.8 million for building a new school at Kachemak Selo.
The budget still has to go through the Legislature, but the fact that it’s even in the governor’s budget is good news for the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District and the tiny community at the head of Kachemak Bay, which struggles to educate the school’s just under 60 students in inadequate and deteriorating leased buildings. The project tops the statewide school construction needs list.
But when the school district’s capital projects priority list — with K-Selo at the top — came before the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly last week, the project almost didn’t make its way on to the Legislature.
Assemblyman Brent Johnson said he had considerable heartburn about the estimated $16 million price tag for the new school and the fact that the state funding would only cover a little over $10 million of the cost. That would obligate the borough to come up with the rest. He proposed amending the school district’s capital projects wish list to remove the K-Selo project before sending it along to the Legislature.
“To build the school, it’s over $250,000 per student. And the bottom line is I just don’t think that either the state or the borough can afford to build the school at that price,” Johnson said.
Assembly President Blaine Gilman said that modifying the school district’s priority list would be unprecedented, but that he was not comfortable with the possibility of having to come up with the extra money.
“We don’t have it in our general fund, we don’t have it in the school district’s general fund. And so we’ll be in the situation, either we’ll reject the money from the state, not accept it, or we’ll have to put it out for a bond. And a bond issue will not pass for this school, in my opinion,” Gilman said.
Mayor Mike Navarre urged the assembly to leave the list alone.
“You can disagree with the list but I think taking off the No. 1 priority on their list is, quite frankly, not appropriate,” he said.
To start with, Navarre said, the appropriation might not make it through the Legislature. Even if it does, the assembly doesn’t have to accept the grant. And even then, the $16 million is an estimate. The cost could be lower, especially if the Department of Education would allow the borough to address the problem in a different way.
The borough looked at upgrading the four-wheeler track out to the beach community into a passable road and then building a school along East End Road that could also serve other small villages in the area. Though the soils and topography of the area didn’t make that look feasible, Navarre said.
But a new school wouldn’t necessarily have to cost $1,000 a square foot, as is currently estimated. Navarre said he talked to the commissioner of the Department of Education about building more cost-efficiently, perhaps by barging in modular construction.
“We should look at other alternatives, including doing a demonstration project for how the standards at the state level should be changed and adapted to small, rural communities, because we do this all over the state with state grant funding,” Navarre said.
Navarre also cautioned that the current setup in K-Selo doesn’t meet state school facility standards, and the matter could come to litigation if the situation isn’t addressed.
“We could end up potentially on the hook for 100 percent of addressing the cost,” he said.
Assemblyman Wayne Ogle suggested passing the list as written, then having a work session with the school district and possibly sending a resolution to the Legislature at a later date requesting the K-Selo project to be removed.
“What we don’t want to do is we don’t want to be micromanaging them,” Ogle said. “They’ve got their thing, we don’t need to get into their business. But on other hand if it spills over to us approving gobs of money to do their projects, we should have an input to it.”
Johnson removed his amendment and the capital projects list passed unanimously. Meanwhile, last week, officials from Kachemak Selo were in Juneau lobbying legislators to keep the school construction funding in the budget.