School board discusses aging buildings

The average age of Humboldt County School District buildings is 58 years.

The oldest school, Winnemucca Grammar School, was built in the late 1920s. French Ford Middle School was built in 1995 and is the youngest building.

The Humboldt County School District (HCSD) Board of Trustees held a day-long retreat on Jan. 9 to discuss the district’s mounting facilities issues. In particular, board members discussed the condition of the buildings and the district’s increasing dependence on portables.

Keeping buildings up-to-date takes time and a lot of money. Equipment and machinery malfunctions can happen slowly or suddenly, as can structural issues. Some of the heating units and duct work in some of the buildings haven’t been replaced since construction.

In the older schools like Lowry High School, that means those units have chugged along for 50 years. When they stop working — or even catch on fire as was the case at Lowry High last year — repairs can cost quite a bit.

Schools are also feeling the stretch of growth and the need for spaces that didn’t exist until fairly recently, like computer labs.

Structural and land limitations prevent expansion at both Winnemucca Grammar School and Sonoma Heights Elementary. To make up for lack of building space, almost every school in the district uses at least one portable building.

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Lowry High School, French Ford Middle School, Sonoma Heights Elementary School and Winnemucca Grammar School all use two portables each. McDermitt Combined School and Grass Valley Elementary use three portables. Paradise Valley, Orovada and King’s River schools use one portable each. The Options program also uses a portable, and the district office has three portable units.

The portables measure 66 feet by 24 feet split into two classrooms. A lot of the units are dry, which means they don’t have plumbing. Most of the habitable units house computer labs or pull-out classes like art and band. Those not fit for classes are used for storage.

Of the district’s 23 portables currently in use, 14 have far surpassed their recommended life of 25 years. Only six are 20 years old or less. Some of the portables were built in the 1980s, making them around 30 years old.

When the portable at Sonoma Heights burned down, the district started taking a closer look at the condition of the portables.

“They’re old,” HCSD Superintendent Dave Jensen said during the retreat. “Does that mean we replace them? Does that mean we go to physical construction? I think that’s why we’re here.”

The portables have roof problems. The foam used for ventilation begins to deteriorate, and the shingles themselves degrade. Re-shingling a portable’s roof costs about $200 per square foot.

Wet units have plumbing issues and always run the risk of burst pipes in the winter months.

The maintenance department’s employees work pretty hard to keep the units running, on top of other work orders. These aren’t simple fixes, either. When a heater goes out in one of the older portables, maintenance has to order a replacement made special for that unit.

New portables cost quite a bit of money — $190,000 for a unit with bathrooms — with added costs like transportation, plumbing, electricity, set up and ramps that can almost double the price.

In order to save taxpayer dollars, the district usually buys used units, but those come with their own problems like plumbing bursts and temperature control malfunctions. The portable that housed Sonoma Heights Elementary’s computer lab was destroyed in September when a heating unit caught fire.

The district will replace the burned unit through insurance, but the replacement portable will also be a used unit.

School board members agreed that the first step is finding out what each school has and what it needs in terms of space. Chris Entwistle suggested an audit of each portable’s use. Carrie Stringham suggested hiring an outside professional to assess what kinds of space each school needs.

“We can sit here and say ‘what about this?’ and ‘what about that?’...but none of us has the expertise to really look at this the way that it needs to be looked at,” she said. An expert could provide some solid data and projections the board can use to move forward, she added.

Even if district enrollment slows or stagnates, Chairman Bruce Branginton said, the problem of relying on aging portables remains.

“Is there a point ... at which we are going to look at all or some of these portables and say they have lived their life and they must be replaced, regardless of any other considerations?” Braginton asked.

“At some point, this district will have to do something about every single one of them, one way or another,” he continued.

For now, the board will continue to gather information and consider ways to make the best use of district facilities.