Back in 1996, the Salt Lake City School District began what would be a half-a-billion dollar effort to make sure its schools are all safe during earthquakes.
It’s down to one last building: District headquarters at 440 E. 100 South, which is now being torn down. Demolition should be complete by mid-September, and the new offices will take around two years to complete, said Executive Director of Auxiliary Services Paul Schulte.
When the two-story center opens, the district will be further into a demographic shift that is shrinking its enrollment and staffing and may lead to school closure plans in the meantime.
Superintendent Timothy Gadson III, who has since been placed on administrative leave by the board, chose to hold off on considering any schools for closure until the end of the 2022-23 school year, which began on Tuesday.
Using an existing building as headquarters would have required identifying a place large enough to fit the entire administrative staff, and it’s not clear whether the district had such a space, said district spokesperson Yándary Chatwin.
And with cracks appearing in the district office building’s walls and the carpet beginning to ripple in many of the rooms, the building was showing its age. The prospect of moving to a new earthquake-resistant office is a relief to Schulte and other district officials.
“That building was on borrowed time,” Schulte said. “It was a good old horse and it was useful, but it was time for a change.”
Administrative employees have relocated to a temporary office at 465 S. 400 East. School board meetings currently are being held on the east end of the third floor, and the next meeting is scheduled Tuesday.
Why is it happening now?
Prioritizing earthquake safety in the district started with two-voter approved bonds — a $73 million bond in 1993 for the reconstruction of East High School and another for $137 million in 1999. A parent of students at East High School had urged the school board to consider whether all 40 of its school buildings would crumble during an earthquake.
Along with some district savings, the bonds funded the effort that ended up taking the district more than 25 years to complete and cost around $500 million in total, The Salt Lake Tribune has reported.
Every existing school that was being retained was earthquake-resistant by 2012. And in the fall of 2019, the district completed rebuilds of the last two that had to be demolished — Edison Elementary and Meadowlark Elementary.
Plans to rebuild the district office were initially discussed in March 2021, but were delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Even as seismologists have warned of the potential for a major earthquake along the more than 217 miles of fault lines in Utah, there has been little direction or funding from state leaders to improve K-12 seismic safety.
The district’s focus paid off as Salt Lake City School District was also the only district in Salt Lake County that reported no damages when the magnitude 5.7 earthquake struck Magna in 2020.
How much will it cost?
The board approved a $34 million budget for the office rebuild at a meeting in June. Salt Lake City construction company Big D Construction was chosen to carry out the project, after the district solicited proposals from architects in 2021.
Supply chain issues and labor shortages caused by the pandemic caused a spike in the cost of construction that has not come down, Schulte said.
“Given the constraints we have, there is a possibility that [the cost of the building] will go up, because of the current market,” Schulte said.
While the district needed bond money to rebuild schools, funding for the new office has come entirely from savings by the district over the years, Chatwin said.
“We’ll value engineer this as we go along,” Schulte said. “… It’s kind of a double-edged sword. You only get to build this building once every 75 years, so you want to make sure you do it right.”
School board members briefly considered but rejected a plan to build a new office near the softball field by West High School, between 200 and 300 West, in January. Concerns voiced by teachers at the aging West High and the cramped site of the proposed office ultimately soured the board on the plan, and members voted to approve the rebuild the office at its current site.
Before the demolition, the district sold the remaining refrigerators, ice machines, cabinets, whiteboards and other things in a name-your-price clear-out sale in May. One parent stuffed stacks of chairs into an elevator, while others claimed massive oak desks.
What will it look like?
Once completed, the new office will be “L”-shaped, running along 100 South and 400 East, according to blueprints Schulte presented to the board in 2021.
The north, east and west sides will be made of brick and the south will largely be made of glass, he said. The glass will feature tinting technology that will change with the seasons, allowing the district to save on air conditioning in the summer and bring in natural light in the winter.
“We’re conscientious about the neighborhood and making sure it wasn’t so modern that it didn’t fit into the community,” Schulte said. “I think it struck a good balance.”
There will be a new area centered on professional development, Schulte said, and patios on the southeast corner for employees to work outside. In all, the new office will have the appropriate space “district leaders need,” Schulte said.
The blueprints include plans for a two-level parking garage for employees.
What other projects is the district working on?
The district is reviewing bids from architects for plans and cost estimates to rebuild West and Highland high schools. The bids state the project will need to be funded by a bond, if the board moves forward.
The board approved a proposal during a meeting on Aug. 2 to start looking for a bond counsel to guide the district through a potential bond election in November 2023.
The architects who will be carrying out the feasibility studies will hold meetings — on Sept. 7 at West and Sept. 8 at Highland — with community members to discuss the potential rebuilds.
In an effort to be more sustainable, the district is nearly finished with replacing all of the lightbulbs in its schools and fitted solar panels on the roofs of six schools.