SEWARD — It’s always difficult for Selma Casagranda’s friends to come to her birthday parties.
The recent Seward High School graduate was born in September, prime flooding season in her hometown of Seward, Alaska, on the Kenai Peninsula, which juts into the Gulf of Alaska south of Anchorage. Home to around 3,000 people, Seward sits between Resurrection Bay and the Kenai Mountains. A massive 700-square-mile glacial icefield flows out of the mountains, melting off into braided rivers and tributaries before reaching the bay’s shores. An average annual precipitation of 70 inches ensures streams flow swiftly across the landscape, sometimes flooding the only road in and out of town.
“In the fall, everybody knows, they’re ready for a flood,” Casagranda said. “It’s kind of just something we’ve gotten used to almost.”
It’s not just birthday parties the heavy rains disrupt, but also the community’s schools. Casagranda said in one classroom at Seward High School there’s a “huge leak in the ceiling panel.” And in one hallway, students walk around “a big bucket full of water all the time.”
“There’s just a lot of stuff that goes unfixed, and if something were to happen, I don’t know what we would do,” she said.
Kevin Lyon, the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District director of planning and operations, said the leak was “a warranty issue that the roofing contractor is working with maintenance on resolving.”
The problems extend to other schools on the Kenai Peninsula. In December 2020, the high school gym in Homer, about 170 miles southwest of Seward, was closed for weeks, “because it was raining in the building,” Lyon said. In Kachemak Selo, a remote coastal village 30 miles from Homer, students can be found wearing winter coats inside due to chilly drafts that seep through the cracked walls of the building housing the middle and high schools. And when Lyon helped knock down the former Seward Middle School in 2005, he said the wooden beams were so rotted he could push a pencil through them.
“These are things that cause a facilities manager to stay awake at night,” Lyon said.
He’s likely not the only person in charge of public school facilities who is having trouble sleeping. More than half the country’s public school districts need to update or replace multiple building systems or features, according to a 2020 estimate by the U.S. Government Accountability Office. The G.A.O. estimates that about 36,000 schools nationwide need to update or replace their HVAC systems.
School facilities in low-income communities are in poorer condition than those in more affluent districts and cost more to keep up, further exacerbating inequities, researchers have found. In 2014, the U.S. Department of Education estimated the total cost of needed repairs at $197 billion, or around $220 billion in 2021 dollars.
Leaking roofs, lead pipes and faulty heating and cooling systems are surprisingly common in America’s schools. Structural reinforcements to protect against catastrophic weather events are not. In places like Seward, natural disasters intensified by climate change, like increased rains, flooding and storm surges, could severely damage or even level entire school structures. (It’s happened before. In 1917, floodwaters ripped Seward’s first schoolhouse from its foundation.)
Poorly maintained buildings make it harder for kids to learn, research shows, and can cause health problems for both the country’s 50 million students and 6 million staff, who spend a third of their waking hours in schools. School buildings also serve as community centers, especially in small towns where the schools are often the largest physical structures for many miles. In times of crisis, school facilities often play a key role as places of shelter for local residents. All these functions are better served by properly maintained buildings constructed to withstand whatever the regional climate throws at them.
And, as in Seward, many communities struggle to cover school facility maintenance costs without help from the state or federal government, which have long been parsimonious.
A proposal by Congressional Democrats could mean $130 billion to repair the nation’s schools — the largest sum of federal funding for school infrastructure since the 1930s.
Local officials on the Kenai Peninsula aren’t counting on the federal money yet. For now, they are still focused on a $30 million, 19-project local bond proposal. They’ll likely get little help from the state.
Today, Alaska spends about a third of the National Council on School Facilities recommended amount on capital projects. Oil prices dropped in 2014, plunging Alaska into a financial crisis and shrinking state funding for school capital projects from an average of $300 million per year to $124 million. The same year, the state enacted a moratorium on its share of new school bond debt reimbursement, which is ordinarily 60 percent to 70 percent. Without reimbursement, the cost to districts for capital projects effectively tripled.
And yet, damage to Alaska’s public infrastructure, including school facilities, from climate change is projected to cost between $4.2 billion and $5.5 billion by the end of the century, according to one study. Proactively adapting public infrastructure would significantly reduce those costs to between $2.3 billion and $2.9 billion, the study’s authors estimated.
In fact, in 2019 and 2020 some or all funds to reimburse municipalities for past projects were vetoed by Gov. Mike Dunleavy, a former educator. The 10-year moratorium on even partial reimbursements could create a backlog of more than a billion dollars’ worth of capital projects across state schools by 2025, according to a March analysis of Alaska’s K-12 capital spending by Bob Loeffler, a professor at the University of Alaska Anchorage’s Institute of Social and Economic Research.
“Clearly, you have to spend more money,” Loeffler said. “I mean, to maintain things you have to maintain them.”
But the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District, like many small-town and rural school districts across the country, is reliant on a small tax base that is highly dependent on the fading local oil and gas industry, tourism and dwindling state funds.
Money or no money, Seward’s floods keep coming. Its three schools sit on a hillside atop the Japanese Creek alluvial fan, a triangular-shaped area where streams have left gravel and debris. All that sediment builds up on the floor of the stream, inching waters closer to the brink of the levee meant to protect the schools and the north end of Seward. A study of the current levee, which was built after a catastrophic flood in 1986, found it was overbuilt and still protects against a 100-year flood event. But previous floods in the area have destroyed supposedly strong levees. Meanwhile, climate change is expected to intensify storms, potentially bringing more landslides and even larger floods, making it difficult to predict exactly how much protection will be enough.
The schools’ primary function is to provide a place for students to learn, but the wider community has a stake in keeping the facilities in good shape. Because the school facilities are set back against the Kenai Mountains, they serve as an important shelter for residents when tsunami sirens blare.
This summer, borough and district leaders are finalizing their bond proposal, which would allow for critical school maintenance in 38 of the district’s 42 schools. If it passed, Lyon, the schools’ director of planning and operations, could tackle the district’s most crucial school capital projects, but he said there are other critical projects, probably totaling $140 million, that didn’t make it onto the proposal. Seward’s schools could use updated plumbing, roof drains and consistently maintained exterior walls to reduce rain damage, which can wreak havoc throughout a building.
“We have a lot of [maintenance] in the critical range, and that’s strictly due to funding,” he said.
The Kenai Peninsula, which is roughly the size of West Virginia, is home to urban and rural communities as well as multiple Alaska Native and Russian Old Believer villages. (The Russian Old Believers are descended from members of one sect of the Eastern Orthodox Christians who fled Russia in the 17th century to worship in isolation, with some settling in Alaska.)
The current site of Seward was the Unegkurmiut people’s territory when Russians made contact in the 1700s, and is known as Qutekcak, or “big beach,” in the Alutiiq language. The area was an active trading post for centuries. Floods regularly demolished the center of the growing town, and eventually, community leaders built levees and riprap dikes — or retaining rock walls — to redirect floodwaters. In October 2003, one year after a flood that forced people to evacuate their homes, residents voted to tax themselves — an action locals here do not take lightly — and create the Seward-Bear Creek Flood Service Area.
All the things that make Seward beautiful — the ocean, glacier views and snow-covered peaks — make it a “pretty hazardous place to live,” said Stephanie Presley, program lead for the Seward-Bear Creek Flood Service Area. Warmer temperatures are also melting nearby glaciers, causing mountainsides to crack and break apart and releasing more rocks into the streams. There’s no permanent solution, Presley said; the community and the borough will always be working to protect Seward from the risk of heavy rains and floods.
Meanwhile, on the Kenai Peninsula, oil prices have dwindled in recent decades, refineries have shut down, stores have closed and families are leaving. The school district’s aging buildings — 25 percent of the schools are 50 years old or older, and 80 percent are more than 30 years old — house fewer and fewer students. State funding, dependent on student enrollment, is also shrinking.
“Can we afford to even maintain them, keep the doors open?” Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Charlie Pierce said. “How do you pay for it? Now, you’ve got taxpayers that are out there that are suffering.”
In a February presentation to the school board’s finance committee, Lyon said the longer these projects are put off, the more expensive they become. In October 2020, it took $209.82 to purchase what would have cost $100 in 2001, he said.
Should the proposal — already put off a year due to the coronavirus pandemic — make it onto the Oct. 5 municipal ballot, there’s no guarantee residents will approve it. It would cost borough taxpayers an average of $27.80 per $100,000 of assessed real or personal property values. And residents have vetoed smaller projects than that before.
In 2018, borough residents refused to authorize a loan to build a new school in Kachemak Selo, where kids now sometimes wear their coats to class. The small Old Believer community there has been requesting a new building for a decade to replace three small, locally constructed buildings with cracked walls, uneven floors and delicate roofs.
There’s only one way in and out of Kachemak Selo: a steep switchback trail down a tall bluff to the beach below. Cars can technically drive the trail, but a number of studies show building a proper road — or even a tram system bringing students from the valley over a mountain ridge to another Old Believer school — is not possible. The remoteness and inaccessibility are major contributors to the project’s roughly $16 million price tag, and the price tag is a big reason voters said no. The state is offering the borough a $10 million grant to build a large new school facility, which requires a $5.4 million match. The match amount is included in the current bond proposal, but Pierce says if the Kachemak Selo school is on the ballot again, it will fail.
“I don’t think you need an 18,000-square-foot building for 40 children to go to school,” Pierce said. (The actual plan for the new school calls for a 15,226-square-foot building to comply with state education facility requirements.)
In an unprecedented move, Pierce is requesting that the state Legislature shift the funds from the department of education to the department of commerce. From there, the department of commerce could issue the borough a “no strings attached” $10 million grant to build a smaller community center in Kachemak Selo that would house the school. District and borough leaders won’t know if this idea, which would remove the need to raise the $5.4 million match, will make it through until the Legislature and governor sign off on this year’s state budget.
Voters in Alaska are notoriously opposed to new taxes, but the current funding system in the U.S. often hands the bill to local voters. Nationally, many are unwilling, or unable, to pay. Students in Baltimore had to huddle in coats for warmth when outdated heating systems failed in the winter of 2018. Schools in Detroit have been closed when teachers staged sickouts over issues including infestations of mold, rats and roaches. In New England, schools with faulty or no air-conditioning systems cut their days short or closed altogether when early June temperatures brought extreme heat to the region.
The nation’s districts spend about $46 billion less per year on facility upkeep than what is needed to maintain a “healthy and safe” school setting, according to a 2016 report from the 21st Century School Fund, a research and advocacy organization. The report said Alaska needs to spend about $1.1 billion by 2024 to address aging school infrastructure — a figure expected to grow as natural disaster events continue to increase in frequency and intensity. The largest climate change-related damages here, after flooded roads, will be from the ground under buildings sinking, slumping or buckling due to permafrost thaw. That’s because permafrost, ground bound together and made watertight by ice, is melting.
None of these climate change-related predictions is about the distant future. Since 1995, floods and erosion have already caused more than $35 million in damages on the Kenai Peninsula alone, according to the Kenai Peninsula Borough. In California, wildfires or other emergencies closed at least 2,262 schools during the 2018-19 school year, affecting more than 1.2 million students. Some closures lasted only a day, while others lasted weeks. In Southwest Alaska, the Yup’ik village of Newtok began relocating to a new village called Mertarvik in 2019 to escape the eroding force of the Ninglick River. There’s no permanent school yet in the new village, as the region’s district is waiting for available funding.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal ultimately spent about $18 billion in today’s dollars to build thousands of public buildings, including 4,383 new schools. Repairs and additions were made to 30,000 other schools. The Reopen and Rebuild American Schools Act, if it passes, would be the largest sum of federal funding for repairs and upgrades to school facilities since.
Originally included in Biden’s American Jobs Plan, the money outlined in the Reopen and Rebuild proposal was cut from the infrastructure compromise between Biden and moderate Congressional Republicans that was announced on June 24. The compromise does provide for electrifying school buses, lead pipe removal and expanded broadband access. Biden and Congressional Democrats have signaled that the money for school facilities will be part of the reconciliation package they hope to push through without Republican support.
Back in Seward, Casagranda, who will be attending college in Santa Barbara, California, this fall, said many of her school’s problems have been ignored as leaders decide which projects they’re able to pursue.
She said if schools in Seward were severely damaged by floodwaters, rain, landslides or other climatic disasters, “it would make [students] feel like we’re not really cared about.” Seward kids already think of themselves as alienated from the district because they’re far away from most peninsula communities, Casagranda said.
“I think that if we were to get flooded, or a bunch of damage happened, we wouldn’t even be surprised necessarily, because we’re kind of used to that,” Casagranda said.
This story about school facilities was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.
Victoria Petersen is a former Peninsula Clarion reporter who currently is a reporting fellow for the New York Times food desk. Her work has appeared in Education Week, Anchorage Daily News, High Country News magazine and other outlets.