Officials weigh options for repair-prone Gilbert school

The Arizona Republic
Thursday, February 11, 2010
Emily Gersema


Emily Gersema / The Arizona Republic

Several windows in the administration and gym buildings at Power Ranch Elementary have cracks in the corners of the stucco and concrete that frames them. Higley Unified School District officials say this has allowed rain water to seep in.

Power Ranch Elementary looks like it has been through a few earthquakes, but Higley Unified School District officials can't recall any reports of seismic activity in Gilbert.

They are, however, aware of the campus's constant need of repairs and several skinned knees and bruises - the result of children tripping on the uneven floors and sidewalks.

Stones embedded in a concrete slab to channel rain water away from the school have split and shifted as if they were on a fault line.

The courtyard sidewalk looks like a short skateboard ramp, although the district has tried to level it. The rest of the walkway slopes unevenly, as do the floors in several of the buildings - an issue that Higley Unified School District officials believe caused more than 150 children to trip in the past two years, according to school accident reports.

The gymnasium walls strain against each other and the ceiling, and have started to separate. A few cinderblocks in the gym, roughly 10 feet above the floor, now jut out of the wall by an inch like misplaced puzzle pieces.

Normally such problems would describe a building that survived a natural disaster, or that is as old as the local centenarian, Higley Elementary and Middle School.

But Power Ranch Elementary isn't on a major fault line and is not a historic landmark. It's 7 years old.

Anthony Malaj, Higley's director of educational support and community partnerships, said district officials "are not trying to alarm the school community."

However, he said no district employee has the engineering expertise to identify which structural issues are in need of urgent repair, what's causing the damage or how resolve it.

Cracks and holes are constantly appearing on the buildings, sidewalks and interior walls despite repeated efforts to patch, caulk and paint.

"We noticed it's getting increasingly worse," Malaj said.

He compared the campus buildings to a hospital patient - one that requires significant rehabilitation.

"This is not like a flu victim," Malaj said. "This is more like someone that's been in a car accident."

Numerous repairs since 2008

School buildings typically carry a five-year warranty, which is a promise by the building contractor to handle repairs until the warranty expires. The district began noticing repairs that seemed abnormally high in 2008, Malaj said.

Since the $13.2 million campus was built with money from the Arizona School Facilities Board, Higley officials asked the state board what to do, and were told to ask their insurer.

The Phoenix-based insurer, the Arizona School Risk Retention Trust, a not-for-profit corporation that oversees Arizona districts' insurance and legal claims, handled most of the repairs at Power Ranch Elementary.

"The trust sends somebody out to repair the facility for $20 (thousand) $30 (thousand), or $40,000 depending on what the issue is," Malaj told the House Education Committee hearing Monday. "They will go away, and some time passes, and we are back doing it again."

The cycle became tiresome. Higley officials said in 2008, they noticed the floor was constantly shifting and dipping as if giant bubbles were blowing up underneath. From the outside, they could see areas where the base concrete had separated from the floor.

Enter the district's insurer

Last fall, they asked the trust to take a closer look.

The trust sent an official to investigate in October. Higley officials said they have yet to see the results.

They have decided they couldn't wait any longer. Late last month, they hired the Tucson law firm DeConcini, McDonald Yetwin & Lacy to inspect Power Ranch Elementary.

The firm has hired a construction consultant, Philip S. Coppola & Associates in Fountain Hills, to study the buildings and soil, then produce a report and cost estimate.

According to Web sites, the consultant specializes in defective construction cases and has acted as an expert witness in numerous court battles.

A lawsuit, if successful, is one option to fund a renovation or rebuild Power Ranch Elementary. Legislation is another.

Reps. Laurin Hendrix, R-Gilbert, and Warde Nichols, R-Chandler, are co-sponsoring an amendment to House bill 2323 that is tailor-made for Higley.

Higley voters in 2006 approved $120 million in capital bonds to pay for school building upgrades.

But as home values sank, and so did Higley's opportunity to sell the bonds and leverage money for fix-ups.

In Arizona, a school district cannot sell voter-approved bonds if its debt exceeds 10 percent of its total secondary assessed property-tax valuation.

The proposed amendment would let Higley exceed the cap.

Lobbyist enters picture

Higley has hired lobbyist and owner of Public Policy Partners, John Kaites, to work on legislation. He offered legislators a couple of options.

If legislators raise the cap, and if Higley successfully sues the contractors that built Power Ranch Elementary, the damages awarded could ultimately be levied against the contractors and then returned to the taxpayers, Kaites said.

Or, "we also could limit this (legislation) to just the pure cost that it will take to repair this school," he suggested.

Tax watchdog organizations oppose easing the cap.

"This bill will set a precedent that the reduction of that debt limit can be overlooked with a bill at the Legislature," said Justin Olson, senior research analyst for the Arizona Tax Research Association.

House Committee Chairman Rich Crandall, R-Mesa, prefers the latter, and has held on to the bill. He urged the district to avoid a lawsuit.

"Litigation is lengthy, expensive, and gets nasty," he said.

The committee has called for the district to provide a cost estimate for repairs or a rebuild. District officials plan to have an estimate within days.

The builder of Power Ranch Elementary, Haydon Building Corp., received a couple calls for minor routine repairs, such as a leaky faucet, the first year Power Ranch Elementary was open, said Fritz Behrhorst, vice president of pre-construction for the company. After that, Haydon did not hear from the district, he said.

A potential lawsuit "is a complete surprise to me," he said.