Should Gruening Middle School be rebuilt? It’s a question some people have after the Eagle River school suffered severe damage during the 2018 earthquake.
The Anchorage School District believes that it should, and has added repairs and upgrades to the building on a hefty bond proposal that could end up on the April municipal ballot.
But, some people remain unconvinced. Last week, the district opened the school up to teachers, staff, and community members who wanted to see the damage for themselves.
On the tour, they had an opportunity to speak directly with architects and engineers about what happened inside the building and why, including whether or not shaky soil beneath the school is one reason why it suffered so much damage.
David Stierwalt, a structural engineer, walked the group through the gym.
“As we get to the gym, you’ll see six holes in the gym floor where they actually drilled through the floor into the soil,” he explained. “There’s lots of different geotechnical problems that could have caused something like that. They looked for all of them. They found none of them.”
Gruening suffered the most damage of any school in the district during the earthquake and will receive the bulk of the money in the school bond proposal for repairs and seismic upgrades.
The tour comes after an hours long school board meeting in November, during which the board passed the $82.8 million bond proposal. There was also a subsequent town hall meeting where hundreds of people showed up to debate the issue and grill district officials.
Gruening Middle School principal Bobby Jefts organized the tour. He said he had been inside the school several times, and he wanted his staff to see it too.
“I think there’s a lot of angst among all of us because of that earthquake, and that’s going to be hard to overcome,” he said. “I think just being able to come into this building and hear what these engineers have to say, hopefully it’ll help a lot of our staff.”
Jefts said he thinks the building did well during the earthquake, and the proposed repairs and upgrades would help it perform better and the future.
“This will be a continued great educational environment for future generations of Alaskan kids” he said.
Stephanie Campbell is a Social Studies and Language Arts teacher at Gruening. She was at the school when the earthquake happened and has since moved with her students to Chugiak High where the middle and high schools now share a campus. She said this is the first time that she has been able to actually go back inside Gruening and look around.
“I think for a lot of teachers when we were all kind of standing that Multi-Purpose Room, it was a little emotional for us,” she said. “Because we haven’t really had time to walk around the school yet.”
She said that at first she didn’t know if she wanted to return to the school even if it reopened. But she felt better after she spoke to the engineers and saw the building for herself.
Anchorage School District Chief Operating Officer Tom Roth says that was the goal: to be transparent with staff and the community. That’s why he asked the architects and engineers to lead the tours rather than leading them himself.
“People can form their own judgments about the school and whether they think it’s a worthwhile endeavor, that’s their prerogative,” he said. “But I want to make sure that they’re making those judgments, that they’re basing those on facts, good information, and truth as best as we can present it.”
Architects hope to complete the design phase of the project around the time of elections in April. If Anchorage voters approve the school bond Gruening could be ready to open by the fall of 2021.