In August, when the air turns crisp and leaves start to change colors, just over 48,000 students returned to school in the Anchorage School District. These students are spread throughout 7.8 million square feet of school space that comprise 86 schools.
Renewal and renovation projects vary from the predictable to the more involved and innovative projects that may stretch over multiple construction cycles, which for the school district are generally constrained to summer when school is not in session.
“Most roofs have a design life of about 30 years,” said Tom Roth, ASD’s chief operating officer. “When you’ve got 93 buildings (86 schools and seven support buildings), we know we should be doing three to five roofs every year.”
But renovation is not limited simply to these necessary component renewals. The district has its eye on security, technology and innovation as well — with the goal to improve the classroom experience for students and teachers alike.
At Gladys Wood Elementary, built in the 1970s and renovated this year by Cornerstone General Contractors, students returned to find that the noisy classrooms — originally designed as an experiment in “open concept construction,” featuring collapsible partitions in place of walls and common walkways connecting classrooms — are gone. Classrooms now feature solid walls and improved technology. As a result, students are able to focus on what is happening in their own classrooms without having to tune out what is going on two doors down.
“Cornerstone has partnered with ASD for more than 20 years, and in our experience school is always in session during construction,” said Joe Jolley, Cornerstone project executive/president. “Every project we complete for the district benefits from those that came before. This makes the Gladys Wood project our best one yet. A lot of that has to do with the quality of the district’s people and their collaborative approach to working with the construction team.”
Complications arise with any con-struction project, but two resources are always limited: time and money.
“We lost six of our 12-week constrtion period at Bayshore Elementary in the summer of 2016,” recalled Matthew Hessel, project manager for Roger Hickel Contracting. “We encountered differences in the roof construction than what was designed and approved through the (Municipality of Anchorage) building safety department after the old roof was removed,” he said. “This is one of the things you can run into unexpectedly when renovating existing structures. By mobilizing our resources, we were able to overcome the compressed schedule and finish the project before the students came back to school with minimal cost impact.”
In other cases, such as the multiyear renovation of Mountain View Elementary, originally built in 1956, contractors were able to work around students and teachers and continue construction year-round. Deela Roe, project manager for Roger Hickel Contracting, worked with the ASD, subcontractors and school staff to approach this challenge head on.
“The first challenge was to maneuver the phasing plan for the five phases of interior work while trying to keep disruption at the school to a minimum,” Roe said. “One of the phases included building a temporary kitchen in the library while the food service areas — including the lunch room — were abated, structurally upgraded and finished out.
“In this phase, we essentially turned the school into four separate sections while we upgraded the central administrative portion. Without the cooperation and efforts of the school principal and his staff, ASD folks and our subcontractors, this would not have gone as smoothly as it did.”
Originally built in 1956, Turnagain Elementary has since doubled in size and was badly in need of a significant renewal. Davis Constructors & Engineers Inc. executed the project at a cost of $13 million. The project included an addition to relocate the administrative offices and improve security; improving site circulation, parking lots and playground; replacing aging exterior doors and windows; reroofing the gym, MPR and the kitchen; improving thermal performance of the exterior walls; renovating the library; and other renovations.
In May, in collaboration with the school administration, Davis hosted a Safety Day for Turnagain students. Davis safety managers related construction safety to safety practices at school and at home and challenged students to develop construction specific jobsite safety posters; winners were voted on and awarded prizes.
“Getting the kids (and the staff) involved from a safety-oriented perspective helps pull them into the team and feel part of the changes we are making to the school,” Davis project manager Andy King said. “From the themes I saw represented on their posters, the ‘safety around construction sites’ message really got through to them in a favorable manner!”
Construction challenges are not limited to seasonality and aging buildings. In February 2015, school districts across the state were informed that the Legislature would stop funding debt retirement for school construction, which they had long counted on as part of the state’s commitment to schools. In 2016, as part of the state budgeting process, Gov. Bill Walker vetoed reimbursement of funds that had previously been approved by the Legislature.
Despite losing financial support from the state, Roth believes there is still community support for these necessary improvements.
“I think the community is committed to their schools, but we have to demonstrate as a district that we are doing due diligence to provide the most value and put forth those things that absolutely need to happen to keep our schools safe and functional,” he said. “Given the economic picture we are facing in the state right now, I think people are really going to want us to stick to the core.”
While money is budgeted each year from ASD’s general fund to finance maintenance and building upgrades, the majority of construction funding comes from the sale of bonds, which must be approved by local voters.
In 2015, voters approved a $74 million bond package that covered the projects wrapping up now at Mountain View, Huffman, Bayshore, Susitna, Gladys Wood and Turnagain elementary schools.
“In fiscal year 2016, the district spent about $78 million on capital improvement projects, and in this last fiscal year (2017) we have spent about $58 million across the 93 buildings,” Roth said.
The 2017 bond package was approved, which will result in eight new roofs, significant improvements to the Integrated Media Center shared by West High and Romig Middle schools, and important renewals of Inlet View and Winter Park elementary schools.
Contractors awarded these con-struction projects are also keenly aware of the importance of providing the best bang for the taxpayer’s buck.
“Roger Hickel Contracting is particularly proud to be able to say that this school was awarded under ASD’s ‘best value approach,’ not necessarily based on the bid alone but based on our qualifications, performance history and commitment to the betterment of the school itself,” said Scott Dunlap, vice president of Roger Hickel Contracting, which was responsible for four of the six elementary schools completing renovation projects this year.
ASD is pleased with relationships it has built with local contractors and with the end product.
“We have great relationships with our primary contractors and are very satisfied with the work,” Roth said. “In the Anchorage area, a lot of the men and women working for the contractors renovating our schools have kids in the school system, and they are just as invested in good outcomes as we are.”
While over 300 Alaskans were employed by contractors and subcontractors to work on these school projects, this “investment” was especially evident in the crew that renovated Huffman Elementary.
“My children, our superintendent’s son, our office manager’s children and even the project manager himself all attended Huffman. We have a unique connection to the school as a result of this history,” Dunlap said. “Being selected not merely on price but on the other factors greatly incentivized us to build a relationship with the actual staff at the school.”
Roth said his goal is to make these schools learning centers of excellence.
“I want to be ahead of the curve,” he said. “We need to create an environment that improves the educational experience for everyone, and when we renew a school we have a responsibility to anticipate that it will be 20 years down the road before that classroom gets touched again.”
The recent school projects include: