United may close Alexis fieldhouse

Marty Touchette

Four options for the future of the Alexis Fieldhouse and attached classrooms were presented at a special public meeting at United High School Monday night, April 12.

CUSD 304 Superintendent Jeff Whitsitt and district architect Bill Phillips, of Phillips and Associates, reviewed each option in detail and recommended closing the entire facility before fielding questions from the audience of about 100.

Currently, the facility hosts a pre-K class, the district offices and an after school program. United sports teams practice at the facility and play all home boys basketball games and some volleyball games at the gym.

Because of the costs to bring the building into compliance with life-safety code, each of the remaining three options would cost the district well over $1 million, even if only the gym and associated rooms remained open for athletic practices.

Phillips has more than 35 years of experience working with schools — his firm specializes in life-safety code compliance — and said he personally conducted inspections of each building in the district. He also inspected most of the buildings' roofs. The architect laid out in detail some of the problems with the Alexis facility.

    * There are a number of damaged doors and doors that did not meet codes.

    * The bleachers are not compliant with code because of their manner of operation, lack of handrails, height of risers and lack of handicapped seating,

    * Inadequate fire separations exist throughout the building. That is a "serious problem," according to Phillips.

    * Upper walls have inadequate fire separations.

    * There are inadequate stairs in the boiler room.

    * A "substantial amount" of deteriorated piping exists ($40,000 estimated).

    * An abandoned science room is in "poor condition."

    * Outdated, and in at least one case out of code, electrical wiring is present.

    * Water damage exists throughout the building.

    * "Most evident" the roof has deteriorated and "just doesn't drain." Phillips added that while the gymnasium roof doesn't leak now he expects it to "very soon."

The cost just to bring the building up to life-safety code, option one of the four presented, and keep the facility running was estimated to be more than $1.9 million.

Phillips repeatedly pointed out that his estimates were based on an almost four-year-old life safety audit. He said with old buildings, it is more likely additional, costly problems will be found.

Options two and three would keep parts of the building open for United athletic practices while closing and demolishing the unused part of the facility. Option two would keep the gym, entrance way and boiler areas open and would cost more than $1.2 million. Option three would keep those portions open while retaining the old shop area, now used primarily for baseball practice, at a cost of more than $1.5 million. The high estimates are a result of the need to repair the roof, ventilation and fire code issues in the Fieldhouse.

"This is not surprising. We have heard this in the past," Whitsitt said.

This is the third time in Whitsitt's tenure an architect has told the board about the high cost to maintain the facility.

Whitsitt said the repairs listed would only bring the building into compliance and did not include any improvements. For example, Phillips said if the building remains open new boilers would be needed "as soon as you can."

Another issue that could cause problems is the presence of asbestos. While exposed areas appeared to be in compliance, Phillips said the cost of dealing with the dangerous substance could be high. His estimates only considered addressing asbestos issued with exposed plumbing. However, it is possible that significant amounts of asbestos might be hidden behind walls and under the building near the heating pipes, which would significantly increase costs.

Despite the bleak financial outlook for the Fieldhouse, the news is good for the rest of the district's facilities. The combined cost estimates for life-safety code improvements at the high school, junior high school and both elementary schools was just $81,000.

Should the decision be made to close the Fieldhouse, the most likely outcome for the building would be demolition. Phillips estimated the cost to demolish just the section of the building built in 1923, about one third of the classroom space and boilers, was $300,000. He declined to give an estimate on the complete demolition.

Athletics would not suffer if the building closed, Whitsitt said. Some gym time would have to be shared at other facilities for practices, but that was "fairly typical" at other schools. However, the small size of the UHS gym would preclude the hosting of regionals and sectionals and an audience member said seating might be an issue at the smaller gym.

The superintendent said the board felt an "urgency" to address and resolve the issue of the Alexis facility. Phillips said each year the district does not act increases the cost to conduct the work about 5 to 6 percent based on typical increases in the costs of raw materials. He added that, based on the life-safety code, the school faced a "good faith" expectation to address the issues and had not met that expectation for the Alexis building at this time.

Audience reaction to the proposed closure was mostly positive. However at least one attendee rued losing "a part of our history,"

"We like what we have," he said.

But another commenter from Alexis said he liked the improvements he saw at the high school and recognized the need for change.

"I was born and raised in Alexis. ... We've got to progress. We need to get in gear and get this done," he said. It was the only comment to be received with a round of applause.

Another commenter added, "We have to put this in perspective. We are talking about losing a gym when other schools around us are dealing with closing buildings."

Whitsitt said board members, who were all present, would take the information and consider it before making a decision.

"We elected these seven people to represent us and they have a tough decision ahead," he said.

The superintendent said he would be glad to host another meeting or even conduct a tour of the Alexis facility. He asked residents to contact him or board members with their comments and suggestions. He said he would post more information on the district's Web site.