School construction projects wind down

Posted: Monday, September 13, 2010

ANCHORAGE - Construction on the state's schools have wound down now that kids are occupying the hallways again.

Ninety schools across the state saw at least some development during the summer break, whether it part of a planning phase, a phase of construction work, or the completion of a project, according to Kimberly Andrews, a school finance specialist with the state Department of Education and Early Development.

The total budget for these projects is more than $428.8 million, though Andrews noted in an e-mail that the dollar figures presented represent the total budget for each of the projects, not the amount that was spent specifically this year.

State appropriations cover the majority of the costs, though a local match is usually required.

"All of the projects will have a participating share. It varies between 2 percent for Regional Educational Attendance Areas, and 5 percent to 35 percent for municipalities on the grants. Debt projects will have a state reimbursement of 70 percent or 60 percent," Andrews said via e-mail.

Regional Educational Attendance Areas are rural areas of the state that are unorganized and have been divided into educational service areas, she said.

Eleven of these projects are located in Anchorage. The priciest of these is a rehabilitation project at Robert Service High School, which received a $21 million grant in fiscal year 2011.

Between 2002 and 2006, half of a larger rehabilitation project was completed which, according to Principal Lou Pondolfino, will ultimately cost more than $60 million. The district is currently deciding whether to accept the grant from the state Legislature. If the grant is accepted, the district would have to pay a $9 million match, Pondolfino said.

Among other areas, the school's life skills classrooms would get a much-needed remodel, in addition to the school library and the cafeteria, supposing the remodel is successfully completed.

This season, the school's gymnasium underwent a $528,949 facelift to repair a leaky roof and make some other minor touchups, said Ray Amsden, director of facilities for the Anchorage School District.

Outside of Alaska's major urban centers, rural schools are seeing a bevy of improvements this year and in the coming years.

Chefornak, a village of 475 residents located 90 miles south of Bethel, serves about 150 students in its combined elementary and high school campus. The existing 17,571 square-foot building can't properly facilitate each student.

"Overcrowding is the main reason that a school makes it on a fundable level on the state capital construction list," said Kate McIntyre, a project manager with the Lower Kuskokwim School District.

A construction project currently under way will more than double the surface area of the campus, giving students and school officials 45,250 square feet. Contractor UIC Construction LLC was awarded a $36.2 million contract to undertake the project.

The extension will bring 11 new classrooms and a full-sized gym to the campus. The gym will set the campus apart from most other rural schools in the state, McIntyre said, because most schools use a multi-purpose room that might have a half-sized basketball court.

In many villages, school gym facilities can become impromptu community centers for large gatherings.

Additionally, a new generator and a boiler will be installed. And after these new features are completed, the contractor will begin renovating the existing building and bringing it up to new building codes.

UIC was given the order not to disrupt the school year with its work. To that end, students will be moved to the new building while the old one is being renovated.

The more remote a village, the more difficult it can be to transport the materials and manpower needed to complete a construction project. The island of Diomede, which lies west of mainland Alaska and sits just east of the dividing line between U.S. and Russian waters, is about as remote as it gets.

The island houses only 117 residents, and as of Oct. 1 of last year, 32 students attended Diomede School, the island's only school. The 2010 graduating class consisted of two students.

The only means of getting materials in and out is by helicopter most of the year. From January or February until sometime in May, an ice runway facilitates fixed-wing aircraft.

The school is in need of a major upgrade, said Bob Dickens, director of facilities for the Bering Strait School District. The foundation beneath the campus is unstable, Dickens said, meaning that the buildings tend to deteriorate quickly due to the stress placed on them from all of the structural shifting that occurs.

When the project is finished, the school will have new roofing, new metal siding, new windows and new doors. A new back generator will be installed, and sprinklers will be put in as currently there is no fire suppression system on campus.

"For all intents and purposes, when the project is complete, it will appear to be a new facility," Dickens said.

Right now, 65 percent of the new renovations have been designed thanks to a contract with firm ECI/Hyer. However, Dickens said district officials are looking to work with the contractor to finish the design, as it is better to allow the contractor some input because only they can fully anticipate some of the construction needs of the project.

The project was given a grant for the full cost of construction, $16.2 million, by the state last year.

Dickens said the district is looking to put the project out to bid within the next couple of months. The district intended to have the project's construction under way this season, but the difficulties of transporting architects and engineers to the site forced a delay.

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