Shifting soils at new school site prompt questions of oversight

The eventual location of the Meeker Elementary School was one of three sites considered for building the new school.

Meeker schools have had long history of problems caused by shifting soils

The eventual location of the Meeker Elementary School was one of three sites considered for building the new school.
Editor’s note: Residents who had problems with the site of the new elementary school shared their concerns long before the situation occurred with the gym. Because of fears about possible retribution for speaking out publicly, they requested anonymity.

MEEKER I Long before it was revealed there was a problem with a wall shifting at the new Meeker Elementary School, local soil conditions have had a history of causing structural problems.
Just seven weeks after the opening of the new Meeker Elementary School, the gym was temporarily closed because of safety concerns about the east wall. It was discovered the wall had shifted because of soil pressure.
“We are hopeful that we can get into the gym on Tuesday (Oct. 26),” said Jason Hightower, school principal. “The work on the inside is nearly complete, but the outside work will be taking awhile longer. I don’t have a timeline for when that will be completed, but the outdoor work won’t keep us from utilizing the gymnasium, as the wall has been placed back into plumb and the connections have all been repaired.”
Structural problems for schools, due to shifting soil, is nothing new in Meeker.
In 1917, the Meeker grade school building settled, due to problems with the soil, and the school was declared unsafe. A new grade school was built in 1919. But in 1937, the second school building was also declared unsafe because of leaking water pipes, again due to the soil, and the structure was condemned.
Now, another grade school building is experiencing problems related to the nature of the soil.
Brian Len, owner of Northwest Colorado Consultants in Steamboat Springs, was not involved with the new school project, but is familiar with soils in the Meeker area.
“Soils are highly variable in Meeker, especially up on the hill,” Len said. “It’s very site specific. They (the soils) range from moderately expansive to collapsible. I was just in town last Thursday looking at a house up on 10th Street that moved.
“Sometimes it can be a design issue, sometimes it can be a construction issue,” Len said. “Until they pinpoint why it moved, it could be construction, it could be design. It’s hard to say.”
Besides the gym wall, there have been problems with the parking lot and the sewer line at the new school.
“It has been a nightmare ever since they started, and it’s primarily soil related,” said a concerned resident. “It all goes back to the location of the school. That permeates the whole thing.
“It (the new school) should have been up on the hill farther,” the resident said. “That was the biggest mistake — the site.”
The school board decided on the present location of the building after considering two other sites. Some who questioned the site that was eventually chosen for the new school are now saying, “I told you so.”
“That wasn’t a real good site,” said another concerned resident. “When they were doing some of that excavation work, I questioned if they were sure they wanted to do that. If you’re digging that deep into shale, you’re going to have a horizontal push against the wall. When you expose shale to air and water and different things, it has a lot of force to push whichever way it’s going to push.”
In November 2008, Meeker voters approved a $24 million bond issue, with $17.4 million going toward construction of the new grade school. Some residents have expressed concern the district will have to sink more money into the new school to fix problems associated with the site.
“Every project has glitches … but at some point they are going to finish paying Neenan and that’s the last time they are going to see Neenan, I believe,” a resident said. “What the school board does with our money is our business. It should be an open book.”
For its part, Neenan Archistruction of Fort Collins, the general contractor for the school project, issued a statement last week in response to the problem with the gym wall.
“A safety concern has been identified on the east side of the Meeker Elementary School gymnasium, where excessive pressure from the hillside has caused unexpected movement to the wall. The Neenan Company’s primary focus is on the safety of the children and community members who use the gym,” said
Ugljesa Janjic, project architect. “Neenan began work to address the issue on Oct. 6 with a team of engineers to immediately address the situation and implement corrective measures to relieve the pressure from the wall.
“Structural repair work on the east wall of the Meeker Elementary School gym will be 100 percent complete as of Friday. The repair work was designed by a professional engineer with the support of technical consultants, and approved by a certified structural steel and welding special inspector. The gym floor is currently being refinished and the gym will be ready for occupancy the week of Oct. 25. Exterior site work will continue throughout the week. The Neenan Company sincerely apologizes for the inconvenience and concern this has caused Meeker School District and the Meeker community.”
However, residents who were concerned about the site of the new school, worry the problem with the gym wall is just the beginning.
“I don’t know how long the warranty is, but it’s not going to be long enough,” a resident said. “Someone needs to tell the school district to get attorneys now. I think we’re sitting on a bomb that will come tumbling down around us in the form of that school. … I hope that it’s better than what I worry about it being, I really do. I voted for it, and I’m proud I voted for it. But the main thing is they have a problem and they need to have experts and they need to have lawyers … because my prediction is we’re going to have to live with that school and fight about that school for a long time to come.”
Or, as one resident said, “They’d better not get rid of that old school (which was vacated at the end of the 2009-2010 school year). In three or four years, they’re going to need it.”