Structural problems plague Gilbert school - East Valley Tribune: News

Structural problems plague Gilbert school

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Posted: Wednesday, February 10, 2010 12:32 pm | Updated: 3:31 am, Sat Oct 8, 2011.

Gym walls separating at the roof, cracks in the stucco near outside windows and concrete slabs pulling away from the building are just the tip of the structural issues causing problems at Higley's Power Ranch Elementary School, district officials say.

Power Ranch Principal Dawne Turcotte said the school requires constant repairs. When dark clouds appear in the sky, such as Wednesday, Turcotte warily looks up and wonders aloud whether she'll need to get ready.

"I need to call in my resources and get the pumps," Turcotte said.

These structural issues, along with severe drainage problems at the southeast Gilbert school, have caused Higley Unified School District officials to hire a law firm and engineering company to discover whose fault the problems are, what needs to be done to fix them and how much it all will cost.

"We're trying to get to the bottom of the problem," said Tony Malaj, Higley's director of educational support services and community partnerships.

Higley officials are also working with local legislators to change a law to allow the cash-strapped district to use a portion of a voter-approved bond to pay for the Power Ranch problems. The school is located at 4351 S. Ranch House Parkway in the Power Ranch community.

The investigation has been ongoing since October, after mold was found. Structural problems were large enough to become a concern since at least 2008, Malaj said.

Haydon Building Corp. built the Power Ranch campus in 2001, and the school opened for students in 2002. Haydon has not built any other Higley schools but is rebuilding Recker Road in front of the district office, Malaj said. The school's architect is DLR Group.

Higley has hired Tucson's DeConcini Law Firm, which specializes in construction-defects litigation, to start the investigation.

That law firm hired the engineering firm of Philip S. Coppola & Associates to help resolve the issue.

Malaj said he is waiting on a report of findings, along with an estimate of costs to fix the problems, before anything else can be done.

During a tour of the campus Wednesday, cracks in the wall above classroom doors could be seen in the hallway. Expansion joints were visibly separating and buckling out, causing stucco pieces to fall on the floor. The stucco needs to be swept up daily.

Rippling in the linoleum floor, sinking sidewalks in the courtyard causing a dip, and a crack in the gym floor have caused students to trip. At last count, 175 students since August 2008 have gone to the nurse's office for injuries resulting from tripping, Malaj said.

Outside, uneven window sills allow water to collect and drain into classrooms, causing water to drip down the walls and puddle on the carpet in classrooms.

At one point in the foundation, several inches of space can be seen between the wall bottom and the concrete slab.

Cracked and shifting concrete water drain diversions, built at the bottom of drainage gutters down the wall from the roof, built to direct water away from the building, are doing the opposite and bringing water into the building and under the foundation.

Floors are cracked and moving apart in the cafeteria. Large cracks can be seen in every corner of the gym.

The recent heavy rains caused the entire courtyard to be covered in at least an inch of rain. Pumps had to be brought in to pump out the water to the street, and the school's 967 students had to walk around the outside of the building to get to their classes, causing safety concerns.

Sinkholes have formed around the campus where water collects and doesn't drain properly.

Bob Steiger said he is concerned by the flooding and construction problems, not only as a parent of two children at Power Ranch, but also as a former president of the Power Ranch Community Association. The association has worked with Higley facilities staff on the construction and landscaping of Centennial Elementary School, Higley's newest school, also in Power Ranch.

"Any time you have penetration of the building envelope, you have opportunities for issues such as mold or poor energy conservation," Steiger said. "I have the utmost confidence that HUSD's facilities people have the right standards, understand the issues and know how to get them resolved. The challenge is contracts, warranties, and any time you involve attorneys, things take time."

Higley will "most likely" seek litigation, although the issue is ultimately up to a governing board decision, Malaj stressed.

Once the costs are compiled, which should be available by Friday, those numbers will be given to Rep. Rich Crandall, R-Mesa, who heads the House Education Committee.

Higley officials are working with Crandall; Rep. Laurin Hendrix, R-Gilbert; and Rep. Warde Nichols, R-Chandler; to change the law to allow Higley to use a portion of its $71.5 million voter-approved bond to fix the Power Ranch problems.

Higley has not been able to use this money because a school district can't exceed 10 percent of its secondary assessed valuation in total outstanding debt. Higley can't sell more bonds because it would pass that threshold, but Higley is trying to raise that percentage.

Higley officials testified Monday in front of the House Education Committee.

Without a change in the law, or unless the economy picks up and housing values rise in the district's boundaries, Higley won't be able to use the remaining $71.5 million of a $120 million bond voters approved in November 2006.

"It allows the district to use their own voter-authorized bonds to take care of their own problem," Malaj said. "The district isn't sure what the limit will be yet, but (House Bill 2323 is) just our piece of legislation.

"These voters expect their schools to be constructed with that money," he said. "However, because our economy is down and assessed valuations dropped, we no longer have the ability to access the full bonds."

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