Architects evaluating Petersburg’s Rae C. Stedman elementary school have found flammable insulation underneath the floor of the four-decade old building and say the problem needs to be corrected. The school district is hoping the discovery will mean a better chance for funding a three million dollar upgrade for energy efficiency at the school.

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The Juneau architectural firm Jensen Yorba Lott surveyed the condition of the building to prepare for a planned upgrade to the windows and walls at the school. During an examination of the building earlier this year, the company’s Tony Yorba discovered an inch and a half of what may be sprayed cellulose insulation and another inch of expanded polystyrene insulation that had been installed underneath the floor of the school. “I can conjecture that possibly the one was put on to try to protect the other or to add R-value, I’m not really sure but at the end of the day what you have is two layers of exposed combustible insulation on the underside of the elementary school floor,” Yorba said in an interview this week.

KFSK file photo

Yorba’s report states the materials are an unacceptable life safety danger to the occupants of the school and put the building at risk. He took a sample of the insulation, exposed it to flame and says it burned completely. Yorba said he contacted a deputy state fire marshal about his finding. “I was concerned enough about it that I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t going off on a tangent, cause it’s fairly expensive to add protection on something like this. After talking it over, we quickly both agreed that it was a life safety issue that needs to be addressed. The fire marshal told me that the fire at Hooper Bay School a couple years ago was caused by just this situation, kids playing with matches underneath the school building caught the flammable insulation with the matches and destroyed the building.”

Yorba said the spray-on insulation was an add-on, sometime after the original construction of the building in the 1960s.  The architect notes as an aside, the issue is not just limited to the school, especially with homeowners beefing up insulation with government energy rebates. “I have noticed in more than one location people leaving white insulation or the pink styrofoam the extruded polystyrene insulation exposed in their basements and their attics and the underside of their floor framing and that is really dangerous, they really need to cover that with something to prevent a little flame from fully engulfing their house,” Yorba said. “It’s a really dangerous situation.”

The company recommends leaving the material in place under Rae. C. Stedman elementary and covering it with some additional insulation that is not flammable. School superintendent Rob Thomason called it a serious finding and hopes people do not go under the building. “We’ve blocked it off, the access is limited and I would encourage kids, and parents to talk with their kids but nobody go under there and play with anything flammable. It’s made it this far, we think we can go further. It’s certainly something that’s raised our level of concern,” Thomason said.

The district was already planning over a million dollars of work to replace the windows and walls to bolster energy efficiency at the school. The latest cost estimate including a fix for the insulation under the school is around three million dollars. The school district is applying to the state for grant money to do the work and thinks the flammable insulation makes the project an emergency. Thomason thought that could help with state funding from the Department of Education. “We, school district believe we have a very strong case for the state funding via a grant, 70 percent of getting that building up to the condition that we believe it needs to be to be safer, or protected and more energy efficient, warm for kids. Right now there’s rooms in there that are very cold and it’s not winter yet,” he said.

The district has unsuccessfully applied for the state grant money in the past few years for the wall and window replacement. Petersburg’s School Board plans to ask the city council to put a bond issue on the local ballot a year from now, in case the state grant money does not come through. The board heard an update on the project this week and board member Jim Schwartz called the project overdue. “If we wait for it to be chosen, it may never get done. If we wait til the legislature makes a decision to not fund it and then go to bonding, we’ve not been able to do that the last several years. So my suggestion is that we could do this on a two-pronged way,” Schwartz said.

Meanwhile board president Jean Ellis, a former legislative aide, noted the community would have to come up with 30 percent of the project cost with either a bond issue or a state grant. Ellis said getting the bond issue on the ballot early would give the school district time to make its case with voters. “I think you need time to educate people about the need for it. And the fact that what’s its going to or not going to cost them. I think that’s an important factor for local people,” Ellis said. “And the fact that this, we’re talking uninsulated walls and single pane windows. Like we’re heating the parking lot. The energy efficiency numbers they use on this thing assume that you have at least double pane windows. They don’t even go down to single pane windows. And so, it’s just, I think most people can understand uninsulated walls and single pane windows.”

The project is ranked ninth on the city’s overall capital project priority list, updated this month by Petersburg’s city council. That’s a drop in ranking, from number five last year.