School district applies for state money to repair aging buildings

The school district has submitted its application for a spot on the Alaska Department of Education’s list of schools in need of major repair and rebuilding grants.

The department reviews and lists projects from across Alaska in order of priority, and then each year the Legislature and governor decide how much state money to commit — which has been only enough in recent years to cover less than 10% of the projects.

The district is hoping for $6.5 million from the state to go along with $3.5 million from a bond issue approved by Wrangell voters in 2022, totaling $10 million to cover the most important work items at the elementary, middle and high school buildings.

Wrangell’s application for a place on the state funding list included information from 370 pages of detailed reports on the condition of the school buildings. Juneau-based NorthWind Architects prepared the reports under a $267,000 contract with the borough. Two teams of engineers spent almost two weeks this summer inspecting the buildings, including walking the roofs and crawling around the foundations.

The reports listed about $42 million in potential repairs and improvements, which the school district has narrowed down to $10 million as its top-priority work. The $42 million total is a bit misleading, explained Josh Blatchley, the district’s maintenance director. He said some of the deficiencies are addressed more than once in the report, such as money spent on a priority repair may eliminate the need for further work of a lower priority.

“It was similar to what I was expecting,” Blatchley said of the comprehensive reports. “I think for the most part the buildings are fairly sound.”

Many of the inspectors’ recommendations covered repairs, replacement and upgrades to roofs at all the buildings, along with new siding, insulation, heating and ventilation controls, a new boiler at the middle school and other non-structural work.

The inspection crew found rot in some of the laminated-wood beams under the Evergreen Elementary School gym. “That’s one of the first items on our list,” Blatchley said.

In addition to repairing rot damage, the district’s top-priority $10 million work plan focuses on protecting the structures from deterioration, such as installing new roofs, and saving money by adding insulation and upgrading the heating systems.

The buildings are old and the middle school and elementary schools roofs in particular are at the end of their life expectancy, Blatchley said. The Stikine Middle School was built in 1979; the two buildings at Evergreen Elementary were built in 1969 and 1979; the high school was built in the mid-1980s.

The buildings add up to about 117,000 square feet.

The deadline for districts to submit their applications for the Department of Education’s Major Maintenance Grant Fund was Friday, Sept. 1. The department is scheduled to release its initial rankings in early November, with the Legislature next year to consider how much money to appropriate toward the program.

The grant program is highly competitive, with about 100 district requests listed each year totaling around $200 million in state aid — far in excess of available funding.

The Legislature this year appropriated $30 million, which would have been enough to cover the top 11 items on the $218 million list of requested state funding. However, Gov. Mike Dunleavy used his veto power to reduce the $30 million to $19.6 million, enough for only the top five projects.

Legislators last year appropriated $100 million for the grant program; Dunleavy vetoed it down to $37.5 million, enough for the top 10 projects out of 97 on the list. In 2021, lawmakers approved $21.6 million for the program; the governor vetoed the entire amount.

If Wrangell does not succeed in its quest for state funding from lawmakers and governor in the legislative session which starts in January, the district could try again for a top spot on the Department of Education’s funding list for the 2025 Legislature. “One more bite at the apple,” said Schools Superintendent Bill Burr.

If that fails, the district and the borough, which owns the buildings, will need to develop a work plan limited only to the $3.5 million approved by voters in 2022.

The borough sold the bonds in January of this year, and the municipality needs to show substantial completion of the work plan by January 2026, said Mason Villarma, the borough’s finance director.


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