Borough to lose $1.4 million under proposed Dunleavy education cuts

Alaska, News, Uncategorized

Originally published in the Peninsula Clarion

Gov. Mike Dunleavy introduced legislation that would repeal a 2018-2019 appropriation of $20 million to K-12 public education in Alaska. In a letterto peninsula Sens. Gary Stevens and Peter Micciche, Kenai Peninsula Borough School District Assistant Superintendent Dave Jones asked for support in opposing the repeal of the one-time funding.

Of the $20 million, $1.4 million was appropriated and allocated to the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District, according to documents from the state Department of Education and Early Development.

The school district budgeted the $1.4 million into their General Fund Revenue, which was used to reinstate 11.5 teaching positions.

“We have been employing and paying those folks since the start of the school year in August,” the letter reads.

In his letter, Jones said the district cannot afford to be forced to spend an addition $1.4 million in fund balance.

Last year, the Legislature passed a $20 million appropriation to be distributed among Alaska’s school districts during the current fiscal year. Dunleavy’s proposal essentially nixes the $20 million appropriation approved by legislators when the budget passed.

The $20 million was the first budget increase in years. It was divided among Alaska’s 53 school districts and Mt. Edgecumbe school in Sitka.

According to a document from the Office of Budget and Management, the proposed education cut is intended to provide money to underfunded programs at other agencies.

“The additional funding created a situation in which education was funded beyond the statutorily required amount while other programs were underfunded. This reduction is required to meet other obligations of the state,” the document states.

On Monday, the governor proposed two supplemental budget bills. Senate Bill 39, the bill that includes a $20 million cut to education, would provide an increase in funds to the Department of Corrections, the Alaska State Troopers and the Office of Information Technology.

Both supplemental budget bills are in the Senate Finance Committee.

The AP contributed to this report.15335682_web1_AP19017041481805-1200x796.jpg

After shutdown ends, federal workers pick up the pieces

Alaska, Beyond Alaska, News, Uncategorized

Originally published in the Peninsula Clarion

The longest shutdown in U.S. history ended Friday when President Donald Trump signed a bill to reopen the government for three weeks. Nearly 700 emails and 60 voicemails awaited Amy Milburn when she returned to work after being furloughed for 35 days. Milburn is the area director for the United States Department of Agriculture and Rural Development office in Kenai. The office is home to only two employees, including Milburn. She said the impact of the partial federal government shutdown went beyond herself and her coworker.

It was hard knowing how many people were affected,” Milburn said.

Without a regular paycheck, and with the uncertainty of when back pay will come, Milburn said she had to cut costs for her family. She said she cut $600 off her food bill.

“It had an effect on our economy,” Milburn said. “Neither of us were able to go out to eat, which means a server didn’t get a tip and a restaurant didn’t have a customer. I have more heartburn over people who didn’t get their tips.”

She said the effect wasn’t just in food consumption, but with all of her partners in the community.

In Kodiak, which is a part of the office’s service area, 20 percent of the 6,000 person population was not receiving a paycheck. Several Kodiak businesses were offering discounts and IOUs. Milburn said there wasn’t as much awareness about the shutdown on the peninsula.

“It’s not as widely felt in the community when it’s just two people (in our office),” Milburn said. “I didn’t see discounts at grocery stores or in restaurants.”

When Milburn and her coworker were furloughed Dec. 21 last year, the office wasn’t completely shut down. Natural Resources Conservation Services and their employees were funded and able to stay open. Milburn said this was a great thing, as they have more employees.

The USDA-Rural Development office has several programs that help Alaskans become homeowners. According to their website, USDA-Rural Development provides federal assistance resources throughout rural Alaska and has invested $2.16 billion dollars in 236 rural communities in the last eight years. Milburn said all of these programs were brought to a halt during the shutdown. Since furloughed workers can’t discuss work during the shutdown, residents concerned with the status of their loans couldn’t reach out to the USDA office for answers.

“Most of the housing applicants understood it was out of our control,” Milburn said.

Milburn said her office is optimistically hoping there’s not another shutdown.

“We’re glad we’re back,” Milburn said. “It’s hard not being considered essential. It’s kind of degrading.”15320013_web1_shutdown.jpg

Further assessment shows borough faced little damage in Nov. 30 earthquake


Originally published in the Peninsula Clarion

Further assessments have found little damage to Kenai Peninsula infrastructure after the 7.0 magnitude earthquake rumbled Southcentral Alaska on Nov. 30 last year.

Kenai Peninsula Borough Emergency Manager Dan Nelson said all borough buildings have been deemed safe to occupy. Initially, building managers and supervisors assessed immediate damage following the earthquake. Next, Nelson said seismic specialists conducted detailed screenings of borough buildings and their final report was issued to the borough last week.

“We didn’t have damage compared to Anchorage or the Mat-Su, and the Kenai Peninsula was lucky,” Nelson said.

In their report, three buildings were flagged for further assessment by an engineer, which the borough will contract out.

Skyview Middle School, Kenai Middle School and Nikiski Community Center will all be receiving a further assessment by an engineer in the following months.

Nelson said after the earthquake there were a lot of little things that were fixed right away, such as cracks in borough-maintained roads.

In the city of Kenai, City Manager Paul Ostrander said there was little to report after damage assessments.

The Kenai dock was slightly damaged along with an inactive well house, and the building surrounding the well house, which has now partially subsided, Ostrander said.

The city also experienced a water main break in one of the city’s neighborhoods, which occurred a week or so after the earthquake and was fixed shortly after the problem was identified, Ostrander said. The break created a small disruption to the neighborhood’s water supply.

Ostrander said the dock and the well house were both insured.

Residents who experienced damage to their home have until Jan. 29 to file for federal assistance. Nelson said there were a lot of scattered incidents to homes in the borough, but that the state will handle the federal assistance process for residents.

“If you think you have damage you can report it,” Nelson said. “It’s a fairly simple to process to get started on.”

Nelson said now is a good time for residents to evaluate their own home emergency plans.

“It’s a really good time to look at any plans you have for an emergency,” Nelson said. “Just in case the next big earthquake is a little further south.”15279958_web1_47220456_581615692282053_7979177864413052928_n-1200x800.jpg

Borough works to extend state grant agreement for K-Selo

Alaska, Uncategorized

Originally published in the Peninsula Clarion

Efforts to build an appropriate school in Kachemak-Selo are still going strong.

The Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly passed an ordinance at Tuesday’s meeting to work on extending the state agreement for their grant share of approximately $10 million for the school.

K-Selo has been in need of a new school for nearly 10 years. In 2011, the village petitioned the school board for a new facility. In 2016, the state appropriated $10,010,000 for construction of the school, but in order to proceed the borough needed to provide a match. Borough residents voted down the match bond package, which was nearly $5.5 million, last October.

The $10 million grant the borough received from the state expires June 30. Tuesday’s ordinance allows borough Mayor Charlie Pierce to work with the state on extending the grant deadline for up to seven years. Given the extension, the ordinance says the borough will have more time to find the 35 percent match funds required by the grant to construct the school.

The current school in Kachemak-Selo is made up of three borough-leased buildings and serves about 46 students. A December memo from the borough community and fiscal projects manager, Brenda Ahlberg, told the assembly that the current school has deteriorated to the point that it is no longer viable as an educational facility.

The proposed new K-12 school will be 15,226 square feet, the memo said. Some residents have expressed concern about the $16 million cost for the school, given its remoteness and small student population. However, a state statute based on the number of students dictates the size of the school, and the borough does not have the flexibility to downsize the building. Shipping in materials is also expected to increase the cost.

At Tuesday’s meeting, Jason Ross of Nikiski provided public comment expressing frustration over school’s price tag.

“We could probably build a road that would go back and forth and make things a lot easier for education and give them more opportunity,” Ross said. “With a brand new building — getting supplies in and out to build the thing — it sounds like it’s going to be kind of an arduous deal there. It might be easier to just build a road and create access for a bunch of people who don’t have it. I realize they move out there and they want to be off the system… How much money do we spend on a group of kids who choose to live a lifestyle like that?”

One of the largest drivers of cost comes from the remote nature of the village. The village sits at the bottom of a steep bluff only accessible by a dirt switchback trail, too narrow and steep for most vehicles to traverse. The borough initially considered upgrading the road to borough standards but found it would be too expensive.15260861_web1_49606043_273456466666625_3883115979974115328_n-1200x800.jpg

Kenai legislators question Board of Fisheries decision

Alaska, Uncategorized

Originally published in the Peninsula Clarion

State lawmakers from the Kenai Peninsula havebanded together to question a recent Board of Fisheries proceeding, according to a press release. 

An unexpected vote by the Alaska Board of Fisheries, which took place with little notice, decided to move the 2020 regulatory meeting from the Kenai Peninsula to Anchorage. The meeting was originally going to be held in Anchorage, but a March 2018 vote moved the meeting to the Kenai-Soldotna area, the Clarion previously reported.

In a Wednesday letter, the peninsula delegation outlined concerns the “Alaska Board of Fisheries may have intentionally circumvented the public input process that is normally required when deliberations on meeting locations are made.”

“Transparency, integrity and process are imperative in the effort to restore public trust,” said Sen. Peter Micciche (R-Soldotna) in the release. “The people of Alaska deserve better. The public process and the Board’s own procedures were circumvented and Kenai Peninsula officials were disrespectfully misled at the January 18th meeting. The request from the entire Kenai Peninsula Legislative delegation is simple and united: Rescind the actions to move the 2020 BoF Upper Cook Inlet Finfish meeting from the Kenai and reschedule a meeting following BoF procedures. Rebuilding trust must include facing and hearing from the Alaskans we serve.”

At the start of the Arctic-Yukon-Kuskokwim finfish meeting on Tuesday, Jan. 15, Board chair Reed Moriskey mentioned that the Upper Cook Inlet meeting location would be discussed. On Friday, the board reversed their March 2018 decision with a 4-3 vote, bringing the 2020 meeting back to Anchorage, the Clarion previously reported.

“There are not enough words to express my disappointment and frustrations with the Board of Fisheries. It is completely disingenuous to tell people who have driven to Anchorage from the Kenai Peninsula to testify that there would be no action taken regarding the 2020 UCI BoF meeting location. Then, to turn around and have the issue addressed after their departure,” said Representative Gary Knopp (R-Kenai/Soldotna).

The letter requests that the board allows the public adequate notice to revisit the issue.

Proposed sex ed bill would emphasize abstinence, bar discussion of contraception

Beyond Alaska, News, Uncategorized

Originally published in the Peninsula Clarion

A bill filed in the Alaska State Legislatu

education in schools across the state.

House Bill 7 would encourage teaching abstinence to students and prohibit instruction about “erotic behavior” like homosexuality, gender identity, the use of contraception and sex before marriage. The legislation would also require Alaska instructors to teach that life begins at

re by Rep. George Rauscher, R-Sutton, aims to regulate sex and human reproductive education in schools across the state.

House Bill 7 would encourage teaching abstinence to students and prohibit instruction about “erotic behavior” like homosexuality, gender identity, the use of contraception and sex before marriage. The legislation would also require Alaska instructors to teach that life begins at conception.

In his bill, Rauscher said people who stay abstinent prevent the emotional trauma associated with adolescent sexual activity.

“… [A]bstinence from sexual activity (is) the preferred choice for unmarried students because it is the only 100 percent effective way to prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases,” the bill said.

The bill states that sexual activity out of wedlock is likely to have harmful psychological or physical effects, and that there may be social, or health benefits to abstaining from sexual activity.

Rauscher also asserts in the bill that adolescent sexual activity increases the likelihood that a student will drop out of school because of sexually transmitted disease or unplanned pregnancy. The legislation would prevent instructors from teaching students about contraceptive methods and devices that may prevent sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancies.

The bill also emphasizes the idea that bearing a child out of wedlock is likely to have harmful consequences for the child, the child’s parents and society.

The Kenai Peninsula Borough School District uses several lesson plans and materials that teach both abstinence, contraceptive use and consent. Curriculum materials come from several resources, including the Homer Peer Education Team at Kachemak Bay Family Planning Clinic and Planned Parenthood.

At the Education Board’s Aug. 6 work session, the board reviewed resources and materials used by district health educators.The school board approves all the materials used in the district, which are all research-based and meet state requirements.

Rauscher, who has been serving as a state representative since 2017, has introduced several bills this session, including one prohibiting state-funded gender reclassification medical procedures and an act relocating the state Legislature to Anchorage.

Nikiski awaits decision on LNG pipeline project location

Alaska, Uncategorized

Originally published in the Peninsula Clarion

The timeline for the Alaska LNG project — a planned 806-mile pipeline that would carry natural gas from the North Slope to a liquefaction plant and terminal in Nikiski — has not been affected by the federal government shutdown, but progress on the Alaska Stand Alone Pipeline has been halted due to the shutdown, according to a recent community update.

“We’re waiting on a signed record of decision from both the Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Land Management,” said Lisa Parker, Alaska Gasline Development Corporation’s stakeholder engagement manager, at the Jan. 15 Alaska LNG Advisory Committee meeting. “That has been affected by the shutdown. We don’t know when we will receive those records of decisions. Once we receive them, the only outstanding issues with ASAP would be getting state local permits that would be required.”

Parker also said the Federal Regulatory Commission is requesting more data for the Alaska LNG project.

“We thought we received the last data request, however, our Christmas present on Dec. 26 was a note from FERC with 91 additional data requests,” Parker said.

She said the majority of data requested is engineering related, and they won’t affect the draft environmental impact statement, which is set to be released by the end of February.

Parker said they plan to respond to all of the data requests by June. As of last Tuesday, the project has received 1,655 data requests from FERC. All but 111 data requests have been responded to.

Both Valdez and the Matanuska-Susitna Borough have expressed interest in housing the Alaska LNG project, but the likelihood of the Alaska LNG project staying in Nikiski seemed high after Parker’s update. In the last two months, formal resolutions supporting the Alaska LNG project in Nikiski have been passed borough wide, from the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly, the Kenai Peninsula Economic Development District, and the cities of Kenai, Soldotna, Homer, Seward and Seldovia.

“So you have support from Seward to Seldovia that the facility should be located here in your neighborhood,” Parker said.

The draft environmental impact statement coming at the end of February will identify a location for the Alaska LNG project. All of the work that has gone into identifying facilities and infrastructure would need to be replicated in those communities. The Alaska LNG project thus far has already cost tens of millions of dollars, Parker said.

“The draft (environmental impact statement) will identify a location for a liquefaction plant facility, which 99 percent of me says will be Nikiski,” Parker said. “Will there be people that challenge that and say we want it in other places? I suspect yes… I don’t see FERC coming back and identifying a different location.”15224082_web1_50946100_2348129318531823_6143334865862393856_n-1200x800.jpg

Peninsula sees growth in winter tourism

Alaska, Uncategorized

Originally published in the Peninsula Clarion

While the borough’s ports and highways fill up with thousands of visitors from across the world in the summertime, more and more travelers are looking to experience Alaska and the Kenai Peninsula in the fall and wintertime.

Alaska has seen an increase in winter tourism, according to a new report from Anchorage-based research firm, the McDowell Group.

Locally, several chambers across the borough have reported seeing small increases in winter tourism.

In Seward, Cindy Clock, the executive director for the Seward Chamber of Commerce, said in an email that there has been a slight growth in winter tourism in the Seward area.6090701_web1_IMG_2962-1200x800.jpg

“Although we are too far south to promote consistent aurora activity, Silverton Mountain Guides has been offering heli-skiing for the past few years,” Clock said. “Activity, lodging and restaurant businesses have been evolving into year-round businesses as well since they too are aware of this travel trend.”

Cooper Landing has also seen growth similar to Seward’s, with a handful of businesses choosing to stay open longer in the winter, President of the Cooper Landing Chamber of Commerce Stephanie Lesmeister said.

“Several of our members are open this winter and seem to be staying steady,” Lesmeister said. “Local volunteers have been grooming the cross-country ski trails and that seems to draw people to the area. Additionally, fly fishing has been getting more and more popular and we seem to see people out fishing later and later into the winter.”

Lesmeister said Drifters Lodge, Sunrise Inn, Wildmans and The Inn at Tern Lake are a few of the local businesses that have stayed open for the winter.

Tim Dillon, executive director of the Kenai Peninsula Economic Development District, said the winter tourism numbers in the borough are up.

“Borough-wide everybody is pretty pleased with the numbers we’re seeing,” Dillon said. “We’re seeing some growth.”

Over the last three seasons, winter visitation in the state has increased by 2.1 percent. The report said Alaska’s winter tourism has been growing steadily over the last decade, though still far below summer tourist numbers. The report says the number of tourists visiting between the fall and winter season of 2017 and 2018 was up 33 percent from a decade earlier. Data refers to the time period between the months of October and April, and both out-of-state and Alaska residents.

The report notes that the “Chinese market has exploded over the last several seasons.”

“The main draw is the northern lights,” the report said.

The report also notes that Girdwood’s Alyeska Resort reported “unprecedented growth in out-of-state visitation over the last several winter seasons.”

Dillon said local chambers are in a listening mode and are gathering information about what travelers might be interested in doing in the winter.

“Whether it’s northern lights, ice-fishing, snowmobiling, or other winter sports, the peninsula can really accommodate,” Dillon said. “Our tourism industry has really been able to hold its own.”

Soldotna artist honors Dena’ina heritage with Anchorage statue

Alaska, Uncategorized

Originally published in the Peninsula Clarion

Near Anchorage’s Ship Creek, a new bronze statue of an elder named Olga, a Dena’ina matriarch from the village of Eklutna, stands and overlooks land that was once a prosperous Native fish camp.

Soldotna artist Joel Isaak, who is Dena’ina himself, worked on the statue for two and a half years. He said he doesn’t take the opportunity to represent his culture through art lightly.

“It’s a lot of reflection,” Isaak said. “Trying to consolidate the history of cultural annihilation and assimilation in a positive light is tricky. It’s a way to convey that we are still living people.”

Isaak, a Dena’ina language professor at the Kenai Peninsula College, created his proposal for the statue after the village of Eklutna sent out a call for art. The parameters of the project included a piece that was in the likeness of Olga and that it tiedinto the fishing heritage at the site of Ship Creek.

Isaak said it’s always a rare opportunity to himself as an Alaska Native in public art.

“Most of the figurative work, if it is of indigenous people, looks like European people,” Isaak said. “I don’t identify with it from a visual standpoint. Being able to have the opportunity to be able to be a little more in control of the narrative is an honor. It’s exciting to see other people’s excitement at that opportunity.”

Isaak’s work can be found in many places across Alaska. He worked on a beluga whale diorama in Anchorage’s Ted Stevens Airport. Art of Isaak’s can be found in the Sheldon Jackson Museum in Sitka. Locally, Isaak completed statues in front of the Dena’ina Wellness Center and salmon skin bowls in the Kenai Courthouse.

Isaak had two photographs of Olga to base his statue on. The statue has Olga in customary Dena’ina clothing, like fish skin boots and a dress featuring quill work. Isaak said Dena’ina regalia has been important to him to him from an early age.

“Part of my journey in making the bronze statuary is learning how to make the clothing,” Isaak said. “I’ve wanted to learn to make regalia since I was in either first or second grade making paper pilgrim and Indian costume stuff. I researched at museums, and took workshops and learned all the methods needed to produce that clothing so I understood what I was trying to replicate before just looking at a picture in a book and trying to make it look something like that.”

The Dena’ina culture is a matriarchal society. Olga was an elder and a leader in Dena’ina land north of Anchorage. Isaak said the piece was not only honoring Dena’ina history and heritage, but also women in our society.

“Honoring our indigenous women and women everywhere — our society is based off of that model so there’s strong precedent for making an elder and then having the elder be a woman,” Isaak said. “I think it’s poignant in our current situation for the need to honor and respect women in our state and in the world, but especially with the current statistics. Bringing a visual voice to honor the role that women have in our society and culture.”

Born and raised in Soldotna, Isaak has many connections to Dena’ina culture, and even Olga herself. His family comes from the Upper Cook Inlet area in Point Possession. He said he’s distantly related to Olga, going back several generations.

“I’ve always had a strong desire to be connected to my indigenous Native culture and all the different cultures that my family comes from,” Isaak said. “But living here in Soldotna on Dena’ina land there has been a very strong desire from me from a very early age to learn my language and material culture.”

In Dena’ina culture, clothing is used as fine art. Dena’ina people were semi-nomadic or sedentary and would move between summer fish camp and a winter village, which was sometimes in almost the same spot, Isaak said. For this reason, art would move with the people in the form of clothing, which would represent things like where a person was from and what family they belonged to.

“You put (your art) on your clothing and you bring it with you,” Isaak said. “So the quill work design in the shape of the tunic can tell where you’re from — it can tell your clan information. It’s a form of visual written communication that we don’t really have that Rosetta Stone for. It served as a function for that and it also brings in that visual fine art. We just brought it with us everywhere instead of leaving it behind glass or in a frame.”

The statue is near Anchorage’s downtown, which a busy and growing part of the city. Isaak said the statue is a reminder of the area’s past.

“Having it be in Anchorage is making invisible people visible,” Isaak said. “It’s surrounded by this growing city, but we’re still here and making that visual presence.”

Joel Isaak is a Soldotna-based artist who teaches Dena’ina language classes at the Kenai Peninsula College, on Thursday, Jan. 17, 2019, in Kenai, Alaska. (Photo by Victoria Petersen/Peninsula Clarion)Joel Isaak is a Soldotna-based artist who teaches Dena’ina language classes at the Kenai Peninsula College, on Thursday, Jan. 17, 2019, in Kenai, Alaska. (Photo by Victoria Petersen/Peninsula Clarion)

Remodel reveals decades-old mural at airport

Alaska, Uncategorized

Originally published in the Peninsula Clarion

A mural not seen for decades has been uncovered on the facade of the Kenai Municipal Airport.

The decades-old mural, which was revealed Tuesday by construction crews working on the airport’s remodel, depicts familiar local icons, such as the St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox chapel, fishing nets and a dog musher.

The Peninsula Clarion was unable to reach the airport manager, however, Chris Parker of K &A Design said the mural dates to the 1960s and was covered up by metal siding in the 1980s.

The airport was built in 1966 and has been renovated three times since. An expansion of the airport took place in 1983, and the restaurant and lounge were added in 1988. In 2004, sidewalks, entryways and parking lots were updated.6087265_web1_50571651_1213481452140869_437117118274600960_n-1200x800.jpg6087265_web1_50519861_2295495957392712_7765628547107913728_n-1200x799.jpg


After construction workers removed siding from the facade of the Kenai Municipal Airport, a mural with iconic Kenai images like fishing nets, the St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox chapel and a dog musher, was revealed on Tuesday, Jan. 15, 2019 in Kenai, Alaska. (Photo by Victoria Petersen/Peninsula Clarion)

After construction workers removed siding from the facade of the Kenai Municipal Airport, a mural with iconic Kenai images like fishing nets, the St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox chapel and a dog musher, was revealed on Tuesday, Jan. 15, 2019 in Kenai, Alaska.

After construction workers removed siding from the facade of the Kenai Municipal Airport, a mural with iconic Kenai images like fishing nets, the St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox chapel and a dog musher, was revealed on Tuesday, Jan. 15, 2019 in Kenai, Alaska. (Photo by Victoria Petersen/Peninsula Clarion)

After construction workers removed siding from the facade of the Kenai Municipal Airport, a mural with iconic Kenai images like fishing nets, the St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox chapel and a dog musher, was revealed on Tuesday, Jan. 15, 2019 in Kenai, Alaska.(Photo by Victoria Petersen/Peninsula Clarion)

After construction workers removed siding from the facade of the Kenai Municipal Airport, a mural with iconic Kenai images like fishing nets, the St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox chapel and a dog musher, was revealed on Tuesday, Jan. 15, 2019 in Kenai, Alaska.(Photo by Victoria Petersen/Peninsula Clarion)


Superintendent Sean Dusek announces retirement

Alaska, Uncategorized

Originally published in the Peninsula Clarion

Kenai Peninsula Borough School District superintendent Sean Dusek announced his retirement on Monday.

Dusek will be leaving the district at the end of the school year, effective June 30.

“I’m resigning for retirement purposes,” Dusek said during Monday’s Kenai Peninsula Borough School District Board of Education work session.

There is no one lined up to replace Dusek. On Monday, the school board discussed plans to create a committee that would begin the process of finding a new superintendent.

Dusek has served as the superintendent for nearly five years.

During Monday’s work sessions, school board member Dan Castimore said the district was large enough to have a CEO instead of a superintendent. The school board’s committee will see what’s the most suitable plan of action for filling the superintendent’s role later this year.6086445_web1_43236109_1857603760943756_7079385076349272064_n.jpg

School district sees increase in OCS referrals, suicide risk assessments

Alaska, Uncategorized

Originally published in the Peninsula Clarion

Editors note: This story has been updated to show there were 110 suicide risk assessments.

The Kenai Peninsula Borough School District has so far this year seen an increased number of suicide risk assessments and referrals to the Office of Children’s Services compared to the previous year.

As of last week, the district has conducted 110 suicide risk assessments on students this year, Assistant Superintendent of Instruction John O’Brien told the school board during a work session on Monday. Last year, the school district reached a record high of 140 suicide risk assessments for the full year. Suicide risk assessments are done on students who have exhibited suicidal ideation.

In recent years, the district has been working to get more counselors and psychologists in schools to help alleviate growing issues with students’ mental health. O’Brien said he was hoping the district would be able to fund four additional counselors, two for the central peninsula, and one each for the southern peninsula and eastern peninsula, which would cost $400,000.

“Administratively and fiscally, on what’s going on with the state, the board was reluctant to come up with an additional $400,000 for those counselors,” O’Brien said at the work session.

The district uses the number of OCS referrals and suicide risk assessments as indicators of student mental health. O’Brien said recent data for the number of referrals and assessments was troubling.

“I hate to continually bring you this kind of data, but it is real,” O’Brien said. “Our school psychologists, counselors and principals, especially schools that don’t have counselors, are the ones who are on the front lines of students dealing with crisis.”

O’Brien said the number of OCS referrals this year has exceeded numbers compared to 2016.

“At this point in the year we already have almost as many OCS referrals as we have had in years past for the entire year,” O’Brien said. “We’re only one semester into the year now.”

School board member Mike Illg said he is going to keep pushing for more counselors in schools.

“I would like to see (more counselors) in the budget, even if it means we have to cut something else,” Illg said. “Our schools are literally on fire, internally. We owe it to these kids to help them where we can.

“This is coming at us hard and fast and it’s only going to get worse if we do not provide the services they need in our schools. $400,00 is a lot of money, but what’s the long game on this?”

The school district is beginning to work on their FY2020 budget. It is unknown if they will fund additional counselors.6086518_web1_49938847_231582904386448_2351427906602795008_n-1200x800.jpg

Borough seeks to increase voter turnout through election stakeholder group

Alaska, Uncategorized

Originally published in the Peninsula Clarion

A resolution to establish an election stakeholders group to explore election models to better serve the peninsula voters was introduced at Tuesday’s Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly meeting.

The resolution would task the borough clerk in establishing the group, which would maximize accessibility and inclusivity in the voting process.

The stakeholders group would evaluate and solicit constituent comments about various election models to better serve borough and municipal voters.

“While local elections directly impact the everyday lives of borough residents, voter turnout in the borough and municipal elections is typically low and the current election process consumes considerable community resources,” the resolution reads.

The borough conducts regular elections through traditional polling places open on election day and by mail for more remote precincts through absentee and in-person voting sites, according to the resolution.

The stakeholder’s group would also research ways to increase voter turnout in the area.

The group would include a representative of borough administration, one community resident who would represent the interest of people with visual impairments, two members of the borough’s canvas board, one member representing the League of Women Voters, the municipal managers and one council member from each of the borough’s municipalities and two borough assembly members.

The group is slated to form and meet by August 2019.6084655_web1_votecrops-1200x800.jpg

State population decreases, while borough population increases

Alaska, News, Uncategorized

Originally published in the Peninsula Clarion

Alaska’s population decreased for the second year in a row. From July 2017 to July 2018, the state lost 1,608 people, or 0.2 percent of the total population, based on a new report from the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development.

The state’s total population peaked in July 2016 at 739,676. As of July 2018, the population was at 736,239.

Of Alaska’s 29 boroughs, 18 lost population between 2017 and 2018. The Kenai Peninsula Borough gained population during this time.

The biggest losses were in the Municipality of Anchorage with a loss of 2,386 people and the Fairbanks North Star Borough who lost 734 people. The Matanuska-Susitna Borough gained 1,355 people.

Alaska’s population is continuing to grow older. Between July 2017 and July 2018, the population of Alaskans ages 0-64 declined by 0.9 percent while Alaskans age 65-and-older increased over 5 percent.

Alaska has the fastest growing population of people age 65 and older in the country, according to the Alaska Commission on aging. The commission projects the aging populating will double by 2042 before declining. According to the report, the oldest borough was Haines, with a median age of 48.6 years old. The state’s median age is 35.2 years old. The Kenai Peninsula’s median age was 41.5.

According to the state’s report, the Kenai Peninsula Borough, which is home to an estimated 58,471, had a net gain of 361 people between 2017 and 2018, or a growth rate of .62 percent. The borough has seen an increase in population since the 1960s, however, between 2016 and 2017, the borough saw a slight decrease in population. Since 2015, the borough’s population has stayed steady around 58,000 people.

The state released their population projections in 2018, and the Kenai Peninsula is expected to slowly increase to a population of 58,696 by 2020. By 2045, the borough may be home to 63,472 people.

Tim Dillon, executive director of the Kenai Peninsula Economic Development District, said those numbers could increase if certain projects, the Alaska LNG project, are fulfilled.

“A lot depends on potential opportunities we have on the peninsula,” Dillon said.

Dillon said the Alaska LNG project would need 10,000 employees during the construction phase, and then 1,000 permanent employees.

“For every one worker, there is an impact of 20 or more jobs,” Dillon said.

Migration estimates from the U.S. Census show hundreds of borough residents left the borough between 2012 and 2016 and moved to counties in Arkansas, Arizona, California, Florida and Texas. Many residents who moved to the borough between 2012 and 2016 came from many other boroughs in Alaska, including Bethel, Prince of Wales-Hyder Census Area and Anchorage municipality. More than a hundred new borough residents came from Oregon and Colorado during that time.

Shutdown drags on, workers to go without pay

News, Uncategorized

Originally published in the Peninsula Clarion

As 800,000 federal employees face a payless payday Friday, and the president comes closer to declaring a national emergency in order to fund a southern border wall, some Alaska businesses have stepped up to help those who face financial hardship.

Alaska Credit Union 1 released a statement saying affected federal workers can reach out to their bank to request due date extensions on loans, consolidate their loans or even skip a monthly payment.

ENSTAR Natural Gas Company is encouraging impacted federal employees who need assistance with their gas bills to contact their customer service support at 907-27-5551 or email them at

“We’ve put in place a variety of safety measures for our members to help them through this difficult period, so they don’t face long term financial repercussions,” President and CEO of Credit Union 1 James Wileman said in the release.

Some 420,000 federal employees whose work is declared essential are working without pay, including the FBI, TSA and other federal law enforcement officers. Some staff at the State and Homeland Security departments are also working without compensation. An additional 380,000 are staying home without pay. The Senate has approved a bill to provide back pay to federal workers. The House must vote on it. Trump said this week that federal workers will “get their money.” Government contractors, who have been placed indefinitely on unpaid leave, don’t get compensated for lost hours.

Most of the government workers received their last paycheck two weeks ago, and Friday will be the first payday with no money.

The partial government shutdown, which entered its 21st day Thursday, began after lawmakers refused President Donald Trump’s demand for $5 billion in funding for a southern border wall. Since then, lawmakers and Trump have been unable to come to an agreement, with negotiations stalled and the threat of a national emergency declaration looming.

On the peninsula, the shutdown has so far had limited impact on public services but some workers are going without pay.

Federal Aviation Administration employees, which include air traffic controllers and technicians at the Kenai airport, are still performing essential duties, but without pay, Greg Martin, a spokesperson with the FAA, told the Clarion in December after the shutdown began.

Martin said FAA employees in Kenai, and around the nation, remain on the job to retain public safety.

“There’s no operational impact for Kenai because air traffic controllers and technicians remain on the job,” Martin said.

At the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge Visitor’s Center, which has been closed since employees were furloughed at the beginning of the shutdown, trails remained unmaintained Thursday. There were no signs, however, of the vandalism or overflowing trash that have plagued other national parks and wilderness. Activities have been allowed to continue on the refuge, but a sign outside the refuge warned that entrance into the refuge will be at the risk of the visitor.

Both Lake Clark National Park and Kenai Fjords National Park remain accessible to visitors. Access may change without notice and current conditions will not be updated. Visitors should enter at their own risk.

The Kenai office for the United States Department of Agriculture and Rural Development is closed due to the partial government shutdown, according to their office voicemail.

Alaska U.S. Senators Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan spoke out about the shutdown and border security.

“I continue to stress that there is no good reason for a shutdown,” a Wednesday statement from Murkowski’s Twitter read. “The reality is thousands of federal employees and contractors have no paycheck in sight, small businesses that rely on them are suffering and there’s no reason they should be held hostage to a political dispute.”

Sullivan also released a statement Wednesday addressing the shutdown.

“I wish I could tell you when this is going to end — the partial government shutdown,” Sullivan said in his video address. “The good news is we actually, last year, funded the vast majority of the government through the appropriations process. But while this continues, I will continue to work with federal agencies to try to minimize the impact of the shutdown on Alaskans.”

Sullivan said he worked with senior officials at the Department of Commerce to make sure the cod fishery opened on time, and that he will work to make sure future fisheries open in Alaska with federal government support.

“I was able to commend (President Trump’s) team to him for working with us to keep our fisheries open — that’s hundreds of millions of dollars for Alaska communities and hundreds if not thousands of people working in our fishing industry who are out there fishing now,” Sullivan said.

He said he personally encouraged Trump to continue making sure federal agencies are helping Alaskans and Americans.

“I mentioned FEMA — as it continues to work on the recovery from the massive earthquake that hit our state on November 30 — to make sure FEMA is helping Alaskans now to the extent allowed by law,” Sullivan said. “That was an issue I raised with the president today.”

Sullivan also said he introduced a bill that would ensure members of the Coast Guard continue to get paid through the shutdown. The Coast Guard is the only branch of the military not getting paid.

“I know it’s a difficult issue because other federal agency members are not getting paid,” Sullivan said. “But I believe that the brave men and women of the Coast Guard throughout Alaska and our country — who do an amazing job and are risking their lives every day for us protecting the homeland, keeping our fisheries safe and secure — should be getting paid. I know this shutdown is tough for many federal workers and their families in Alaska. They do great work for us and our nation.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Alaska Gasline Development Corporation Board of Directors elects new leadership

Alaska, News, Uncategorized

Originally published in the Peninsula Clarion

The Alaska Gasline Development Corporation Board of Directors elected new leadership at Thursday’s board of directors meeting.

Doug Smith was elected as board chair, Dan Coffey was elected for vice chair and Warren Christian was selected as secretary and treasurer.

Joe Dubler was named interim president for the board. Dubler held senior leadership positions for the corporation between 2010 and 2016, serving as vice president of commercial operations and chief financial officer.

Dubler is replacing the former president of the board, Keith Meyer.

“Joe has the right experience to advance AGDC’s mission of commercializing Alaska’s vast but stranded North Slope gas supply for the benefit of all Alaskans, including access to affordable, cleaner, reliable energy and new revenue to fuel Alaska’s future,” board chair Doug Smith said in a press release about the leadership change.6083473_web1_EE_Keith-Meyercrop-1200x800.jpg

LNG project committee focuses on public input

Alaska, News, Uncategorized

Originally published in the Peninsula Clarion

Chairman for the Alaska LNG Advisory Committee, Tim Johnson, presented an update at Tuesday’s Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly meeting, saying the group is focusing on potential impacts the proposed project would have on borough communities.

The role of the Alaska LNG Advisory Committee is to monitor the activities and developments related to the Alaska Liquefied Natural Gas project slated for Nikiski. In his presentation, Johnson emphasized the importance of planning and being prepared for when the project comes to fruition.

“Even though there’s not a project now, we need to be working toward having a plan in place if it’s sanctioned,” Johnson said at Tuesday’s meeting.

The borough mayor’s office is currently working on getting feedback from borough communities about potential impacts the LNG project could have across the peninsula. Through their bimonthly meetings, the committee is hoping to elicit more comments from the public regarding the project. Johnson said the committee has heard a lot of public testimony, especially when it comes to concerns about rerouting the Kenai Spur Highway. Currently, the highway passes through the approximately 900-acre footprint of the planned LNG plant, which will liquefy and export gas sent from an 800-mile pipeline from the North Slope.

Johnson said the project is very important to Alaska and the borough.

“We want to get input from service areas, Native corporations and city entities so we can have a full list of what the potential impacts of this project are, how we can start to prioritize them and work together to have a plan,” Johnson said. “If something does advance and develop we can work quickly.”

While the borough collects information about impacts from communities, the committee is working on its own list of impacts the project may have on the peninsula, which they hope to prioritize and plan for this year.

“There is no funded project, but as everyone realizes the size and the magnitude of the project is such that if it were to move forward, we need to be ready,” Johnson said.

Johnson said the committee is made up in large part by Nikiski residents but has expanded to represent a larger portion of peninsula communities.

“I think that’s very important because whether you’re in Homer or Seward, there are going to be major impacts,” Johnson said. “It’s throughout the borough, not just Nikiski and the city of Kenai.”

The next Alaska LNG Advisory Committee will be held 6 p.m. on Jan. 15, at the Nikiski Community Recreation Center. Johnson said key topics at the next meeting will include discussion on payment in lieu of taxes, prioritizing impacts and the project’s environmental impact statement that is scheduled to be completed at the end of February.6082515_web1_AJOC_032518_port-counterport-NIKISKI-photo-1200x792.jpg

Borough works toward collecting sales tax on online purchases

Alaska, News, Uncategorized

Originally published in the Peninsula Clarion

An ordinance introduced at the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly meeting would appropriate $10,000 to help set up a work group, which would establish a system for Alaska municipalities to impose a sales tax on online purchases. Once set up, the borough could gain an estimated annual $1.5 million in additional sales tax revenue, according to the ordinance.

The Alaska Municipal League, a nonprofit organization of 165 cities, boroughs, and unified municipalities, is spearheading the effort to collect sales tax from remote sellers, who are vendors not within the borough or state.

At Tuesday’s assembly meeting, borough Mayor Charlie Pierce said he met with city officials from around the borough on Dec. 20, to discuss collecting sales tax through online sales. Pierce said borough attorneys will be involved with the process as it evolves.

“It is coming — it’s the change of the times,” Pierce said at the meeting.

The Alaska Municipal League is requesting contributions from Alaska cities and boroughs to support efforts in establishing an initial working group that will hire a contractor who will implement a statewide, independent online sales tax administration system for sales by remote sellers. The borough plans to make $10,000 available for the Alaska Municipal League.

“(The Alaska Municipal League) has asked us all to pay to play, so we are,” Pierce said at the meeting.

The ordinance states that by contributing to the working group, the borough will be a part of the initial group have direct input on the structure and process.

A recent decision by the United States Supreme Court known as the Wayfair Case now allows municipalities that fulfill certain requirements to tax remote vendors through online sales.

The ordinance will have a public hearing at the Jan. 22 borough assembly meeting.

Micciche files bill addressing ‘Schneider Loopholes’

Alaska, News, Uncategorized

Originally published in the Peninsula Clarion

Monday, Sen. Peter Micciche (R-Soldotna) filed SB 12 in an effort to eliminate “Schneider Loopholes” in state criminal code, a press release said.

The early bill-filing came a week before the first session of the Legislature, which begins on Jan. 15.

Micciche’s “Schneider Loopholes” refer to the 2018 case of Justin Schneider, an Anchorage man who served no prison time after strangling a woman unconscious and then masturbating on her.

“Last year, Alaskans were horrified to learn that a guilty violent sexual perpetrator, Justin Schneider, walked without adequate consequences,” Micciche said in the press release.

In September, Schneider was charged with one count of felony kidnapping and three counts of assault, as well as one misdemeanor count of harassment. The case ended with a deal, where Schneider pleaded guilty to one count of second-degree felony assault. Judge Michael Corey sentenced him to two years in prison, with one year suspended, but Schneider was given credit for a year under house arrest. Schneider won’t spend any time in prison.

In his press release, Micciche said the case exposed serious, long-standing shortcomings on how Alaska deals with cases of sexual assault.

“Serious crimes were ignored and an inappropriate plea deal allowed the perpetrator to serve a portion of the sentence of the single conviction at home with his family,” Micciche said in the press release. “In a state number one in the U.S. for sexual assault, we are making the statement that there will be no more free passes for perpetrators of such crimes.”

The bill seeks to improve sexual assault laws by classifying unwanted contact with semen as a sex crime, which would require perpetrators to register as sex offenders for the crime. The bill would require that strangulation to the point of unconsciousness is defined as assault in the first degree, carrying a sentence between five and 20 years in prison. The bill would also eliminate credit toward time served for electronic monitoring for sexual assault convictions.

“SB 12 will clarify for the judicial system that Alaskans stand with victims, expect progress toward a significant reduction of violent sexual assaults in our communities and those violent sexual criminals will be held accountable,” Micciche said in the press release.

The legislative session begins Jan. 15.6080198_web1_180427Micciche-1200x800.jpg

Local Boundary Commission working with Soldotna in annexation efforts

Alaska, News, Uncategorized

Originally published in the Peninsula Clarion

The Alaska State Local Boundary Commission released their 2018 annual report for the upcoming state legislative session, which reviews the Local Boundary Commission’s activities in 2018.

While no local boundaries changed in 2018, several areas across Alaska are seeking to modify or create new borders, including Nikiski, Girdwood and Soldotna.

In June 2018, the Soldotna City Council passed a resolution to start drafting a petition to annex select areas adjacent to city limits, including a 0.6-square-mile area along Kalifornsky Beach Road.

The report said, “Local Boundary Commission staff provided information and documentation to city staff engaged in drafting the petition.”

The report said staff at the Local Boundary Commission has not been informed when the draft petition will be completed.

John Czarnezki, director of economic development and planning for the city of Soldotna, said the city is still working on developing the petition.

Once the draft is complete it will be presented to the Soldotna City Council. Then, if it’s approved, it will be sent to the Local Boundary Commission for consideration.

If the petition is submitted to the Local Boundary Commission, members of the public will be welcomed for public comment. If the Local Boundary Commission approves the city’s petition, the decision to annex will be in the hands of state lawmakers at the following legislative session.

State law allows municipalities to expand their boundaries through the legislative review process or through voter approval. The legislative process requires municipalities to send a petition to the Local Boundary Commission, and from there the Local Boundary Commission may present proposed changes to the legislature during the first 10 days of any regular session. Unless the recommendation is denied, any changes will be approved 45 days after the initial presentation or at the end of the session, whichever comes first.

In 2014, the city of Soldotna began gathering information about changing its boundaries through the legislative process.

In the summer of 2018, the Soldotna City Council voted to draft a petition for the annexation of seven areas surrounding Soldotna. The draft would need to be approved before being sent to the Local Boundary Commission — a process that would not allow residents to vote on the issue.

In September, the Kenai Peninsula Borough passed a resolution opposing the city of Soldotna’s plan to annex surrounding areas without giving residents the ability to vote on the issue.