PALMER — Following the magnitude 7.1 earthquake last November, the Houston school community was rocked, literally.
The damage to Houston Middle School has made it uninhabitable for students. The middle school students moved over to the High School building to create Houston Jr./Sr. High School under principal Ben Howard in the spring semester of the 2019 school year. Since the earthquake, the Houston community and the Mat-Su Borough School District have remained diligent in working to find a solution.
The matter of finding the students of HMS a new building has not been the difficulty, adding portable classrooms outside Houston Jr./Sr. last winter, and building additional portables with student labor over the summer to accommodate more classrooms. However, the cost of the rebuild is what remains a mystery. The Borough actually owns the school buildings itself, not the school district. The MSBSD is in charge of maintaining its schools, and received another analysis from insurance adjusters and engineers as to the damage in HMS and what the possible options are. MSBSD Executive Director of Operations Mike Brown gave an update to the School Board during a work session on Wednesday. Brown said that there are still three options for using the school again, but he wants to focus on what will make the school safe for the longest amount of time, eliminating the necessity for another school building in the near future. The options Brown presented, backed up by the independent engineers’ research are a small, medium and large degree of repairs. The majority of the damage to the building was suffered in the classroom wing. There are three wings to the HMS structure — the classroom wing, the gymnasium, and the administrative wing that also houses the music and welding classrooms. Brown said that they treated the three wings separately because they do have seismic joints. With the significant damage isolated to one wing of the building, Brown’s options were to repair the classroom wing, tear down and rebuild the classroom wing only, or tear down and rebuild the entire school.
The damage to the gymnasium that nearly resulted from injury, as a speaker fell from the ceiling above to the gym floor below, is mostly cosmetic. The wall that suffered the majority of the failures of the cinderblocks is non-load bearing, and the wall was not adequately reinforced. Brown said that the damage throughout the school was due to poor building codes when HMS was built in 1985. The Concrete Masonry Unit (CMU) walls failed not only at HMS, but at Colony High and other schools throughout the district. The alignment of the cinderblocks one on top of the other, rather than a staggered design, allowed for the quake to shake loose blocks that were not supported by more than one block underneath. Brown said that one of the major problems with repairing one wing independently would be the heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems within the school. The HVAC systems would likely require a full replacement regardless of the decision reached by the school board ultimately handed off to the Assembly for final review.
“Some of the other systems need to be addressed or we’re going to end up with a 35-year-old building after we put millions of dollars into it,” said Brown.
Goyette said that 85% of students are within the academic wing at any given time during the school day, and Assistant Superintendent Luke Fulp illustrated some of the difficulty of meeting insurance requirements by bringing the building back up to existing code where the more cost effective option may be a complete repair and replace. However, Brown specifically refrained from using the words ‘repair’ and ‘replace’ as he opted to talk about reconstruction and what the building would look like long into the future. While the school board still decides on what to do, the idea in Houston is clear.
“They want a brand new building,” said Goyette.