Gruening fix price tag balloons to nearly $40 million

Tuesday, November 19, 2019 - 11:52

Anchorage voters may be asked to spend around $39 million to repair and upgrade earthquake-damaged Gruening Middle School, a price tag that’s $12 million more than the school cost to build in the early 1980s and $15 million more than was recommended by a committee of community members tasked with studying the issue earlier this year.

The Eagle River school is the costliest item on a nearly $80 million school bond package currently being considered by the Anchorage School District for placement on the April election ballot. The reason for the increase is the desire by district officials to make additional needed upgrades that aren’t related to damage caused by the magnitude 7.1 earthquake that struck the area on Nov. 30, 2018.

“The logic behind it is, yes we can do the minimum and put kids in a school that still needs and has been earmarked for these improvements for a number of years, or for an extra cost we can take the time to really give it the sound makeover that it’s due,” Anchorage School District spokesman Alan Brown said Thursday.

In March, the Anchorage School Board endorsed a plan to spend around $24 million to fix Gruening, the cost estimated to replace a roof and stairwell, as well as other repairs and seismic upgrades. According to Brown, the additional spending would allow the district to give the school “a total reset” and would be more efficient to complete at the same time as the earthquake repairs.

Among the other needed improvements are new flooring, upgraded electrical systems and an improved and more secure front entryway, Brown said.

The bond being considered by the board — which is still in the discussion phase — would borrow than $70 million for earthquake repairs districtwide — the bulk of which would be spent in the Chugiak-Eagle River area. More than $42 million would be used for repairs at Gruening and Eagle River Elementary, the two schools that have been closed since a magnitude 7.1 earthquake struck Southcentral Alaska on Nov. 30, 2018. An additional $27 million would be used for earthquake recovery projects across 12 ASD schools — including five in the Chugiak-Eagle River area.

The school board will vote on what to include in the bond package during its Tuesday, Nov. 19 meeting. It would then be up to voters to decide whether to approve or reject the proposal.

This spring, school board member Elisa Vakalis of Eagle River chaired an ad hoc committee of community members that recommended fixing Gruening Middle School for $24 million rather than replacing the building — which would have cost about $73 million, district officials said.

When she first heard the new cost estimate, Vakalis said “that one hit me really hard.” But while Vakalis said the price tag is high, she believes the school needs to be repaired in a way that makes it safe and usable for decades to come.

“This will add 25-years-plus of life to this building,” she said.

The troubled facility has long had issues with design and construction deficiencies and cost overruns, with its opening delayed by a year due to problems with the roof design. Initially projected to cost $15 million, by the time it opened in 1984 the middle school had cost taxpayers more than $27 million due to additional repairs, litigation and consulting fees.

Since the facility on Lee Street has been closed, the school’s roughly 600 seventh- and eighth-grade students have been attending classes at Chugiak High through an arrangement that’s expected to remain in place through at least the 2020-21 school year.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story misquoted Brown as saying the gym floor needs to be replaced. Brown said flooring throughout the building needs to be replaced.

Email Star editor Matt Tunseth at [email protected] or call 257-4274

Facebook comments