Tuesday night’s board of education meeting started with gratitude as Superintendent Bridget Weiss, and board members recognized the “can-do” spirit of Riverbend Elementary School staff, students and families.
As winter break wrapped up last month, a severe snowstorm and ice shuttered schools districtwide for three days, extending the break. During the storm, the heavy precipitation and falling temperatures led to two burst pipes at Riverbend Elementary School — flooding the building, closing the school and setting off a scramble to find a new location for classes to resume.
The search for an alternative location led to an unexpected offer when Tim Harrison, senior pastor at Chapel by the Lake, called Ted Wilson, director of teaching and learning support for the Juneau School district, and pitched the church’s classrooms, offices and commercial kitchen as a possible solution. After a visit from school officials, a quick decision was made to move most of the school’s operations to the church.
In the days that followed, volunteers got to work cleaning the building and preparing to serve as a school. Then, movers helped staff members set up classrooms before students returned on Jan. 24.
At Tuesday’s meeting, Weiss said she owed thanks to “too many people to name.”
“We had an extraordinary situation and the community of Juneau came together because we have an amazing community that prioritizes our schools,” Weiss said.
She singled out Elizabeth Pisel-Davis, Riverbend principal, for her leadership during the crisis.
“She showed grit, stamina and fortitude. She was a problem-solver, and the situation was not for the faint-of-heart,” Weiss said.
Weiss praised the Riverbend staff for the amount of effort needed to pick up school operations and move them so quickly.
Weiss thanked the people at Chapel-by-the-Lake for making the enterprise possible and ticked off a roster of community organizations that provided volunteers, support and donations.
“Not all communities do that in the same way. I appreciate the support from our staff and our businesses,” Weiss said, adding that students from other schools in the district pitched in to help along with several members of Juneau’s Rotary clubs and the school’s union.
Board of education president Elizabeth Siddon said the entire situation was “really heartening at a time when we needed something heartening.”
Will Muldoon, who joined the board late last year, agreed.
“As lamentable as the narrative is, I’m bowled over by how efficiently and organically these efforts came together. If we had to go through this, I’m glad to go through it with this school and this staff,” Muldoon said.
During the superintendent’s report, Weiss said that repairs at Riverbend are coming along. She noted that workers had replaced drywall, crews had removed damaged flooring, and installers would lay new flooring soon. She said that supply chain snarls mean that new cabinets won’t arrive until the summer of 2023.
Even with the progress, Weiss said three classrooms would remain unusable due to roof damage and flooding.
“We are hoping to make a decision soon about how and when to transition back,” Weiss said, adding that leaders are coming up with options to share about a transition back to the building and conversations will follow.
Weiss said the school district is insured through the City and Borough of Juneau and that the insurance company will cover the damage after the city meets the deductible. She said she expects the overall cost of insurance to increase based on this experience, the city’s overall claim situation and inflation.
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