New Kivalina school will open its doors to students in October

Kivalina students will start this fall’s school year in a brand new building, with the construction of the building nearing completion.

While the school is a new beginning for the students, it’s the culmination of a long planning process and a lighting-paced construction process for both the school, which will serve as the community’s emergency shelter in the event of a storm or flooding, and the eight-mile evacuation road that connects the Kivalina community to it’s school.

Most of the project is scheduled to be completed by the end of September, and the school will open its doors to students on Oct.19, said Kathy Christy, the Northwest Arctic Borough School District’s capital projects manager in an email.

“The school will be prepared to shelter the community in the event of an emergency,” Christy said.

For now, the crews are completing interior finishes, installing lighting and kitchen equipment and constructing the playground, Christy said.

The school site is eight miles from Kivalina, which is only accessible by air or two annual barges. The location prolonged the construction of the new school, Christy said.

“All the gravel fill for the building site and the school roadways had to be created from a rock quarry near the school site,” she said. “Rock had to be blasted, and big rocks crushed in little rocks and little rocks into gravel before the civil work could begin.”

The process started in summer 2020, and with delivering materials by barge, by the end of September building construction will have taken 17 months, or two construction seasons plus a construction season for creating gravel, Christy said.

However, the planning for this project began almost 20 years ago.

The project was approved by the legislature for funding and then vetoed by the governor back in 2014 because there were a lot of questions about coastal erosion and whether building a new school eight miles out of the current community was the right solution, said Tim Mearig, state education department facilities manager.

The funding for the school was part of the 2011 settlement of a lawsuit that asserted that the state’s method of financing school construction discriminated against rural students. In fact, Kivalina school is the last of the five schools named in the settlement to receive full funding, Mearig said.

The total project budget is $63.1 million, with $50.5 million funded by a state grant from the Department of Education and Early Development and $12.6 million by the borough bond funds, Christy said.

Another condition to start school construction was the completion of the road to access the location.

The Kivalina Evacuation Route and School Access Site – which provides residents with a road to a refuge site at the new school in case of a catastrophic storm – was completed in 2021.

While in the past year, the community did not have a need to evacuate, the road has been used for access to construct the new school, said Danielle Tessen, DOT information officer. Besides, the road allows residents to access fishing sites more easily.

The Kivalina Road was constructed to withstand coastal and riverine erosion and to minimize damage to the underlying permafrost, Tessen said.

“Permafrost was protected by leaving the tundra in place and constructing the road embankment in winter – placing frozen material on top of frozen ground,” she said. “The embankment was also constructed to a minimum 6-foot thickness to provide sufficient insulation over the frozen ground.”

The road was placed high enough to withstand the 100-year recurrence of ocean storm surges and river flooding events. The armor stones were placed needed to prevent erosion as well.

The project was completed in less than four years -which is “incredibly short for a project like this one,” Tessen said.

“The process to advance a new road construction project of this magnitude from inception through construction completion is rigorous, generally involving years of field investigations, engineering, community and stakeholder collaboration, environmental assessment, permitting, and land acquisitions – all before any construction can begin,” she said. “A comparable project could easily take an average of eight years to complete.”

However, building the Kivalina road was urgent and necessary “to establish a safe and reliable means of evacuation for the community,” so the state officials and the Kivalina community completed the project sooner.

The cost of the project ended up being $43 million, which was supplied by the Federal Highway Administration, the State of Alaska, as well as the Northwest Arctic Borough and the Kivalina IRA.

“Had this project taken the more typical eight years to complete, the construction contract,” Tessen said, “would have cost, at a minimum, an estimated $14 million to $16 million more.”

The Kivalina Evacuation Route and School Access Site received last week a national Quality of Life award from the American Association of State Highway Officials.

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