Capacity and safety animate debate over post-earthquake plan for Chugiak-Eagle River schools

Members of the Chugiak-Eagle River community gathered at Mirror Lake Middle School on Dec. 9, 2019, to discuss long-term solutions regarding two area schools that were closed due to earthquake damage. (Photo by Mayowa Aina/Alaska Public Media)

After last year’s earthquake closed two schools in Eagle River, a debate over a long term solution continues to divide the community.

The Anchorage School District wants to maintain two separate high schools in Chugiak-Eagle River and repair the damaged middle school. But some residents think the high schools should combine.

Anchorage Assembly members representing Chugiak and Eagle River held a town hall last week at Mirror Lake Middle School to take a deeper look at the options.

The two-and-a-half-hour meeting was part debate, part community forum and discussion centered around three schools: Gruening Middle School, Chugiak High School and Eagle River High School.

A town hall called by Anchorage Assembly members Fred Dyson and Crystal Kennedy in Chugiak on Dec. 9, 2019. The forum included a panel of people that oppose and support a high school merger as well as district representatives. (Photo by Mayowa Aina/Alaska Public Media)

Gruening sustained the most damage of all the schools in the district after last year’s magnitude 7.1 earthquake. Since then, the middle school has been sharing a campus with Chugiak High School.

In late November, the Anchorage School Board narrowly approved a bond package that includes money to rebuild Gruening and Eagle River Elementary, another school that was severely damaged. Many people at the debate, like Perry Lewis, agreed with the board.

“I like having two schools because I think smaller schools create more connection to school for students,” said Lewis, who has taught at both Chugiak and Eagle River. “Smaller schools brings students to school.”

The other option would combine the high schools by merging Eagle River into Chugiak High. Then, the Eagle River campus would be Gruening Middle School’s new home. Ryanne Slocombe, a parent in the community, says having one community high school would pool resources for students and increase academic and extracurricular offerings.

“We could have one vibrant high school offering many sections of required courses, a greater variety of electives, and more career and technical education options than are currently offered,” she said. “I believe combining high schools and resources would give all our students the opportunities they deserve.”

Other supporters of the high school merger, like Larry Daugherty, believe the high schools should be combined because they say Gruening wouldn’t be safe, even after repairs. Daugherty cited decades-old engineering reports from when the school was originally built.

“I invite you to again consider the words of engineers from decades ago that Gruening Middle School was inherently unsafe,” he said. “I invite you to consider if it is an accident that Gruening was our hardest hit school in the district when all along there had been such serious engineering concerns.”

Anchorage School District Chief Operating Officer Tom Roth presented the crowd with reasoning behind why the district supports rebuilding Gruening Middle School during a forum in Chugiak on Dec. 9, 2019. (Photo by Mayowa Aina/Alaska Public Media)

The district says more recent engineering reports show the building can be rebuilt and modernized to withstand any future earthquakes. Anchorage School District Chief Operating Officer Tom Roth explained engineering firms surveyed the buildings after the earthquake.

“The engineers believe that Gruening is repairable,” he said. “I’m a dad. Do you think I’d put people into a school that’s unsafe? Not a chance.”

Roth also said having two schools is necessary because Chugiak High just doesn’t have the building capacity to merge with Eagle River. Nor could it take in new students if the community begins to grow. Others at the meeting who support keeping the high school separate agreed, saying that overcrowding at Chugiak High School decades ago is what led to building a second school in the first place.

Debbie Ossiander, a past member of the Anchorage School Board and Assembly, says she pushed to get new schools built because she constantly heard stories about overcrowding.

“I heard about kids having to carry their coats to get out to the relocatables. I heard about not being able to park in the parking lot,” she said. “I heard so many complaining stories about not being the optimal situation for kids. So I was pleased that we were able to build these new schools and get bonds passed.”

Although it is rare for the Assembly to reject bond proposals, the current bond must be approved by the Assembly in order for it to end up on the municipal ballot in April.