New school moves to top of district’s priority list

  • A steep switchback “road” allows vehicles with four-wheel drive to access the Russian Old Believer community of Kachemak Selo at the head of Kachemak Bay.-Photo by McKibben Jackinsky, Homer News

Constructing a new school for Kachemak Selo has found its way to the top of the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District’s six-year-plan for fiscal years 2015-2021. 

“Placing a new school at the top of the priority list positions the project, makes it eligible, to gain maximum points from the state’s review process,” Pegge Erkeneff, the district’s communications specialist, said of giving the project the No. 1 position.

A site within the Russian Old Believer Village at the head of Kachemak Bay was approved in June by the KPBSD school board. Based on a 2014 enrollment of 61 K-12 students, the estimated building size is 18,599 square feet for a building cost of approximately $16 million.

The next step for Kevin Lyon, Kenai Peninsula Borough capital projects director, is to complete a grant application to be signed Sept. 1 by KPBSD Supt. Steve Atwater and submitted to the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development for a grant equal to 70 percent of the project cost. 

“The state would give us the 70 percent and we come up with the 30 percent any other way,” said Lyon.

That remaining 30 percent could be through a bond requiring approval by borough voters, through a legislative grant to the school district or “any way we can come up with it,” said Lyon.

After reviewing grant applications, the state issues a list in November of its initial evaluation, giving Lyon an opportunity to provide additional information if needed before the list is finalized in December and submitted to the Legislature as the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development’s funding request.

“Last year the Legislature did not fund (the department’s) major maintenance category, so even if we’re No., 1, it’s up to the Legislature,” said Lyon. 

Taking all that into account, Lyon said the soonest the school could be completed would be for the 2017-2018 school year.

The first record of a district-operated school in the Russian Old Believer village of Kachemak Selo was 1991-1992, with 59 students enrolled. This year’s enrollment is at 57 students that are being taught in three separate buildings.

“The district has two leases for the buildings totaling $4,140 per month. In addition, KPBSD pays the electricity, which is about $15,000 per year,” said Erkeneff.

Those buildings, however, are suffering from issues of settling and plumbing.

School board member Sunni Hilts of Seldovia, who represents areas of the southern Kenai Peninsula, said, “I’m glad it’s at the top of the district’s priority list. It’s an exciting school. We’re seeing so much interest in education in the village and the kids have been highly involved in the planning of this school. It’s a really good time to build a new school.”

Andy Rothenberger has taught at Kachemak Selo for 10 years. This is the fifth year he also has the duties of being principal. 

“When I first started there were 102 students, including preschool. Since then it has declined, but the demographics today are in line with the way they were in the early 1990s. We’re between generations right now,” said Rothenberger of the fluctuating up-and-down enrollment he’s seen in the past decade.

“I expect it to rebound. You can buy a house down here for between $60,000-$90,000, and that’s attractive to younger families.”

Kachemak Selo was the first of three villages developed in the area, Razdolna and Voznesenka being the other two.

Teaching students from the three communities under one roof has been considered by the district, but terrain makes that an impossibility. Kachemak Selo residents use a steep switchback road built into the bluff above the bay to access their homes. 

“It’s taken a lot of work to get to this point,” said Rothenberger of the decision a new school is needed.

 “We’ve spent a lot of money trying to figure out how to get the kids up the hill, but it’s not safe. There’s just no way to put in even a service road, which is a shame because it makes a lot of sense to build one building for the head of the bay.”

Hilts agreed.

“It’s complicated because we have three schools within (a short distance) of each other, but we cannot find a safe way to transport the kids out of Kachemak Selo to those places,” said Hilts.

“I really believe that this is the answer, to build a school that will be appreciated, used and valued.”

Having attended village meetings to discuss construction of a new facility, Hilts said she is well aware of the project’s support.

“The kids are involved in what they want to see in it, offering very practical suggestions and planning for the future,” said Hilts.

“This is something that will enhance our school district and education, but also just really enhance the village and the culture because they’re part of the planning process.”

Through a series of meetings and visits to Kachemak Selo during the past year, Wolf Architects of Seattle has sorted out what the needs are of a new facility.

“They took that information and designed a prototype. Now they’ll take that prototype and actually design the structure,” said Rothenberger.

Inaccessibility of the community will require some planning to get equipment and materials to the site, but won’t be a roadblock, according to Lyon.

“There are ways of getting a barge down there. Potentially, a contractor might helicopter some in there. This isn’t the most remote place in Alaska or the district,” said Lyon.

“We’re working hard at trying to get this built for them.”

McKibben Jackinsky can be reached at


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