Nearly four months after the big quake, the future of Houston Middle School remains uncertain

Published: Mar. 28, 2019 at 6:44 PM AKDT
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Middle school students in Houston, Alaska — about a 75 minute drive north of Anchorage — have spent the spring semester adjusting to life in portable classrooms that line the perimeter of the community's high school.

Wood ramps and stairs lead to the doorways, and electrical connections to power the buildings are tucked into metal pipes and driveway wide wooden thresholds to protect the cords from the elements, tires and the feet of hundreds of tweens.

"This is not a long term solution. The wood corrodes. It's slippery in the winter time, super hard to maintain in terms of plowing and shoveling," Ben Howard, the principal for the combined middle and high school campus, told KTUU on Tuesday.

The middle school was too damaged during the quake to stay operational. So sixth, seven and eighth graders were integrated onto the campus of the adjacent high school, which suffered much less damage, as best as space and schedules will allow.

Over lunch, punchy notes of "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy" floated from middle school trumpeters into the lunchroom. The band players were tucked away in a hallway while the high school students ate pizza and sipped from juice containers, visiting with friends over food and for some, foosball.

Meanwhile, the fate of the damaged middle school is far from settled. It may cost as much as $35 million to build anew, Jillian Morrissey, spokesperson for Mat-Su Borough School District told KTUU Thursday.

Estimates for repair have not been released to the school district by the two insurance companies with whom the district holds a combined $25 million in policies, Morrissey said.

Howard would like to see a new career and technology building constructed — something both age groups could use to gain valuable work skills.

Whether to repair, rebuild or make do are options communities across the earthquake damage zone are discussing against the backdrop of a state with new mandates to match spending with revenue.

"I think it might be a good idea for all agencies to work together to make a true effort to control the costs and not necessarily use this earthquake as a way to continue systems that are really running inefficiently," said Sen. Natasha Von Imhof, R-Anchorage, during a March 14 meeting of the Senate Finance Committee to discuss disaster-relief appropriations.

"Perhaps we should take this as an opportunity to look at maybe doing things differently and being a little bit more efficient. And perhaps that means to close schools and capture excess capacity," she said.

During the hearing, Sen. Mike Shower, R-Wasilla, said that Houston Middle School, like Eagle River Elementary and Gruening Middle Schools in the Anchorage School District, is also looking at what's best.

While the Anchorage School District has said it will repair its schools, Finance Committee co-chair Bert Stedman, R-Sitka, remarked that it's possible the legislature may come up with a different conclusion, one of "consolidation and streamlining, versus building, rebuilding, an old cinder block building."

FEMA assistance allows for funding to restore schools to pre-disaster conditions. If the cost of such repairs exceeds fifty percent of the cost to replace a building, then there is some room for the Mat-Su School District and the state to negotiate with FEMA for additional assistance, Bryan Fisher, Alaska Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management's state coordinating officer for the 2018 Cook Inlet Earthquake Disaster, told the committee.

Howard and the school district are hopeful that policy makers understand what remaining consolidated looks and feels like, and that they think carefully about what's best for the community and its students.

"We're doing okay now. But the idea that we could somehow sustain that, I just don't think that that's going to be possible," Howard said.

A merged campus with portables is "a short-term fix, but we can do better than that," he said.