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Middle school seismic upgrade: How costly?

LANGLEY — School officials aren’t shaking in their shoes over a new seismic study of the middle school, but they would like to know the bottom line.

“We want a ballpark number,” South Whidbey School District Superintendent Fred McCarthy said Thursday. “Is it going to cost $20,000 or $2 million?”

The $11,800 study was ordered in the spring and handed to the district last week by Seattle consulting engineers ABKJ of Seattle.

“I think it’s a very important first step to determine the role of the middle school in our future plans,” McCarthy said.

The report summarizes a preliminary walk-through to determine what it would take to bring the school to current earthquake-preparedness standards.

Of the eight structures observed, the two-story classroom building is the oldest, built in 1935. The original elementary school was built in 1940, the original gymnasium in 1949 and the remaining buildings prior to 1961.

No signs of imminent collapse were mentioned, but there were a number of flaws consistent with old age, such as some masonry problems, too many single-pane windows, some deteriorated or missing fittings and some soil erosion around the foundations.

Of primary concern was a recommended upgrade in the way the buildings are attached to their foundations and to each other, and how to retrofit them with the latest systems considered necessary to ride out an earthquake.

No cost estimates were made in the report. It said more detailed engineering studies would be required, if the district decides to proceed.

McCarthy said the engineers will be asked to attend a school board work session scheduled for Oct. 8.

“We want to really grill them about the most essential things that need to be done, and what the cost would be,” he said. “Then we can make a decision. If it’s reasonable, we could go ahead. If it’s unreasonable, we might look in another direction.”

McCarthy said he has been through this process before in his school administration career, working with old buildings.

“My initial response is that there are quite a few areas where things could be done to bring it up to current codes,” he said of the middle school.

“It’s always a judgement issue, how much work you do,” he added. “So we’re going to gather as much information as possible.”

McCarthy said that if the district goes ahead with a seismic upgrade, the cost would probably be substantial enough “that we couldn’t do it with our maintenance-and-operation budget. We would have to do it on a bond issue.”

The district is considering putting a bond issue on the ballot in early 2010, when its current bonds are retired. The money would be used to do essential upgrades on many of the district’s buildings, McCarthy said.

Before offering a new bond issue to voters, however, the district would do an independent survey of all its buildings to determine what upgrades are most needed.

The seismic investigation of the middle school grew out of the work of a 17-member committee that conducted a facilities study last year for the entire district.

“We couldn’t locate a previous seismic study, except for a few paragraphs in a couple of other reports,” McCarthy said.

He said the district at some point may also order seismic reports on the primary school, built in 1968, and the historic Bayview School, now an alternative education facility. It dates to the turn of the 20th century.

“We don’t have reason to believe any of our structures are seismically unsound,” McCarthy said. “We just want to make sure our buildings are up to standards.”

He said it’s much too early to consider what to do with the Langley property if the cost to fix it is prohibitive.

“The middle school has always had a central role in our housing concepts for the future,” McCarthy said. “There’s a lot of emotion attached to it, because it was the old high school.”

And as of Thursday, anyway, it was accommodating 419 students, more than projected. McCarthy said an extra teacher was even assigned to the school at the last minute.

Last year’s facilities study also noted that Langley appreciates a school in its midst, McCarthy said.

“There’s a lot of history around the middle school,” he said. “And the members found that Langley enjoys the presence of young people in the town.”

McCarthy said the middle school seismic report is available on the district’s Web site at www.sw.wednet.edu.

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