Quake-damaged Houston Middle School closed until at least December 2021

PALMER — Houston Middle School was so battered by last November’s magnitude 7.1 earthquake it won’t be reopened until winter 2021 — at the soonest.

Mat-Su school officials say it sustained extensive damage, including collapsed walls, due to a construction technique involving stacked concrete blocks. The other two borough schools with the most damage, Colony middle and high schools, were built using the same technique.

Most of the destruction at Houston was in a two-story classroom wing. Two other buildings — a gym and the administration/cafeteria/welding shop — weren’t as badly damaged, Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District Superintendent Monica Goyette said.

More than 100 people attended a district public information meeting Thursday night in Houston. They learned the district faces three options going forward: repair the building with major upgrades; demolish the school and rebuild; or do a combination of both by repairing the two less-damaged buildings and tearing down and rebuilding the classroom wing.

The cost of repairs at this point is estimated at $25 million to $45 million, officials say. Money to pay for construction will come from school district insurance and Federal Emergency Management Agency funds, Goyette said.

The borough will seek bids on design proposals for the three options, she said. The Mat-Su School Board will weigh in on any decision this fall at the earliest. Then the borough Assembly would need to sign off on it.

The school district plans to send out surveys to Houston Middle School families to give students, staff and community members the chance to weigh in, district spokeswoman Jillian Morrissey said.

The soonest the school could reopen at its original location would be in December 2021, when staff would move in over the holiday break, Goyette said. Otherwise, the school could reopen in August 2022.

Anchorage schools had already invoiced or paid out more than $22 million in quake-related repairs, officials told state lawmakers in February. That didn’t include the most damaged schools in the district such as Gruening Middle School and Eagle River Elementary.

Repair costs in Mat-Su had reached $1.8 million in February.

Houston Middle was built in 1985. Just over 380 students attended the 93,152-square-foot facility.

Within just over a month after the quake, the district installed 13 portable classrooms and other services for middle-school students at nearby Houston High School. There are plans to add two more portables and decking this summer.

Merging the two schools brought the joint student and staff population up to almost 800.