This story was originally published in Education Week, as part of the 2019 Gregory M. Chronister Journalism Fellowship.
At the headwaters of Kachemak Bay and past the terminus of Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula road system sits the village of Kachemak Selo. There’s technically no road to Selo—as locals call it—just a steep switchback dirt trail taking vehicles with four-wheel drive 800 feet down to the rocky beach where the community sits.
The community’s remoteness is one of the reasons Selo has been struggling for nearly a decade to get a new school. Kachemak Selo School—a set of three buildings built in the 1980s and 90s by local residents—is “deteriorated beyond useful capacity,” according to the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District. The community has little hope that a replacement school will come anytime soon for the school’s 39 K-12 students.
While rural districts across the U.S. struggle to pay to maintain adequate school buildings, Selo’s challenges are particularly complicated, compounded by the community’s distinct desire to maintain cultural independence, a patchwork of school finance regulations, deteriorating state support, and the high cost of construction in a roadless and remote community.
The sole community enterprise, the Village of Kachemak Selo Water Company Inc., owns the two buildings that house the central office and the elementary school. The building housing the middle and high school is owned by a private citizen and has more visible damage than the others, with cracks in the corners, crooked door frames, and floors so uneven that the furniture must be reinforced to stay in place. Books stacked under table legs keep the surfaces level.
The schools are among 42 operated by the borough school district, which serves nearly 8,500 students in an area the size of West Virginia. The territory includes some urban schools, rural schools, three other Russian Old Believer schools, and a few Alaska Native Village schools.
In 2011, Selo petitioned its borough government for a new school. The borough then petitioned the state, which responded five years later, appropriating $10 million to build it. To take advantage of those funds, however, the borough had to provide a $5.5 million match. (The price tag reflects the difficulty of carting construction materials to the village.) Borough voters rejected the bond petition for the matching funds in October 2018. And, although the state extended its offer to June 2021, Kachemak Selo Principal Michael Wojciak said voter approval for a second-round vote will be “a tough sell.”
“I get it,” said Wojciak. “We’re in an economic hardship, whether it’s the borough or the state. For people to vote for higher taxes—it’s not a great time to do that.” According to the borough, that bond would equate to $4.95 per $100,000 of assessed real or personal property values.
Long History of Isolation
Old Believers are Eastern Orthodox Christians who fled Russia in the 17th century in order to worship free of persecution or outside influences. Selo is one of four such villages established on the southern Kenai Peninsula in the 1960s. There are no stores here, just a school and a few dozen homes. The women wear long dresses they make themselves, and the men wear traditional tunics with special collars and a thin belt cinched at the waist. Russian, in addition to English, is spoken throughout the community and taught in school. The Kenai Peninsula school district gives Old Believer schools control of their calendars to accommodate time off for holy days.
Drivers who brave the precipitous switchback trail to Selo can see the village entrance about a quarter mile down the beach, where a handful of no trespassing signs are posted on trees. Like other Old Believer communities, Selo embraces its privacy and isolation.
That desire for cultural independence may be one reason the school bond caused controversy within the village.
“Nobody wants the borough coming down,” said Andy Rothenberger, a teacher in Kachemak Selo’s middle and high school. “The town wants their anonymity, and they’re willing to put up with it.”
Rothenberger left the community to teach across the peninsula in the town of Seward, but missed Selo and returned, thinking he could help continue the fight for an adequate school. Now, he said, some members of the community have grown frustrated and apathetic.
“You definitely heard it after the bond failed from the kids,” Rothenberger said. “They were really disappointed and involved in the effort.”
Kachemak Selo student Susanna Reutov, 16, exemplified that view. “Our school is really crappy,” she said. “I didn’t mean to use that word. But there are always earthquakes, and every time there’s an earthquake there’s a bunch of cracks in the wall. You wonder if there’s ever going to be a big earthquake where the whole school would just fall apart.” (The community has experienced tremors from other earthquakes in that part of the state in recent years.)
Susanna and her brother Kelsey, 14, don’t expect to get a new school until after they graduate—but they hope it will be in time for their 8-year-old brother to benefit.
Some residents also worry about the potential income loss if a new, borough-owned school is built, Wojciak said. The community collects rent from the borough on two of the buildings, which helps maintain the utility company and the trail in and out of Selo. The middle-high school building is privately owned.
A Common Concern
Kachemak Selo School isn’t the only one in the district outliving its useful life. In 2018, the district said a quarter of its schools were 50 years old or older, and 80 percent were more than 30 years old. Pegge Erkeneff, the district’s communications director, said Selo is unusual among other district schools because the district doesn’t own the building and thus can only provide limited maintenance.
The problem of deteriorating school buildings is one that plagues the state—and the nation. The United States faces a $46 billion annual shortfall in funds to keep school buildings healthy, safe, and conducive to learning, according to the 2016 report, “State of Our Schools,” by the 21st Century School Fund, the National Council on School Facilities, and the Center for Green Schools.
In some ways, though, Alaska may be more generous than some other states in sharing the cost of new school buildings. Twelve states provide no direct funding or reimbursements to school districts for capital spending, according to the report.
The 49th state offers grants and debt reimbursement for projects that cost $50,000 or more. The Alaska legislature uses state-created priority lists to determine appropriations for school infrastructure, which vary from year to year and come in the form of a grant that requires the district to match 2 percent to 35 percent of the project’s total cost.
On average, the state shoulders 37 percent of the cost of capital construction for schools, as compared with the national average of 18 percent, according to the State of Our Schools study.
The study projects Alaska will need to spend about $1.10 billion in new school construction by 2024 to address its aging school infrastructure—a price tag that could grow as natural disasters and climate events grow in frequency.
Heidi Teshner, the director of finance and support services for the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development, said funding for the grant and debt reimbursement programs has not changed in 20 years, even as availability varies annually.
But in the Kenai Peninsula, borough finance director Brenda Ahlberg said the amount the state provides for school construction and debt service has been diminishing.
How the state plans to address school infrastructure issues in Selo and other communities is unclear. Gov. Mike Dunleavy, a former educator elected in 2018, ran on a platform to shrink the size and cost of government and close a state budget deficit created by dwindling oil revenues. In his first year as governor, Dunleavy made deep budget cuts in departments across the state, including education.
Dunleavy said in a March 2019 interview that the state could explore ways to educate children outside of a traditional brick-and-mortar school building, potentially through distance learning.
“Sometimes we get hung up on buildings in schooling, and less so on educational outcomes,” he said.
And while the federal government provided funding that helped build the state’s education infrastructure during the 1930s and after World War II, there is almost no such support now, according to the State of Our Schools analysis. A Congressional proposal to appropriate $100 billion nationwide for school repairs and rebuilding has languished in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Facilities’ Link to Learning
However, studies show school infrastructure can impact educational outcomes. Air ventilation, adequate lighting, and acoustics have all been shown to help students remain alert and ready to learn, the State of Schools study says. Poor facilities are also linked to student truancy and higher rates of suspension, according to the report.
In Selo, Principal Wojciak said a new school could help with student absenteeism.
“We have a plenty big enough problem with students skipping school and absences,” Wojciak said. “If they had a beautiful building to go to everyday it might be a little more of an incentive.”
There are no estimates of how much longer the community school buildings can be used. If the school is shut down, the district says, it will ensure that students have “a continuity of operations in an alternative learning environment.” That might mean placement in the district’s homeschool program, online distance learning options or “space at the closest area school for students.”
The next closest school would likely be another Old Believer School, either in Voznesenka or Razdolna, both of which sit atop mountains behind the community. Getting there would mean driving a school bus on the beach, then up the switchback trail.
In the meantime, local leaders are reconsidering their push. While Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Charlie Pierce said he isn’t interested in introducing another bond proposition, a smaller, less expensive building may be within means. The school district is working on a $30 million bond package proposal that would help pay for repairs in schools across the district and build a new school in Selo, superintendent John O’Brien announced this month. The package includes 19 deferred maintenance projects and the $5.3 million in matching funds needed to take up the state grant offer.
Wojciak, for one, hasn’t lost hope.
“At some point there’s a legal responsibility to give kids an adequate space,” he said. “At some point, somebody is on the hook. I don’t know what or when it is, but in time, something will change.”