COOS BAY — Blossom Gulch Elementary is sinking.

This is the most problematic building in the Coos Bay School District. It was built on the former site of “Blossom’s Logging Camp” in 1954, a marsh that was packed with fill dirt. Not only does the building hold 600 children, but due to failing foundations the hallways don’t sit flat, stairs are separating from the pavement, and pipes are being crushed.

“This school is not ADA compliant,” said building principal, Linda Vickrey. “We have a student in the second grade who is in a wheelchair. Our floors aren’t flat, so he’s a strong little guy because his wheelchair isn’t motorized. If people don’t push him, he wheels himself around.”

But this isn’t even the worst of the problems for the elementary school.

In January, district maintenance manager Rick Roberts provided The World with a complete list of future maintenance needs for Blossom Gulch, which included:

  • siding repairs/replacement
  • door and hardware replacement
  • window replacement
  • exterior painting
  • sidewalk/stairs replacement
  • parking lot repairs
  • heating system upgrades/replacements
  • gym/cafeteria roof replacement
  • plumbing replacements
  • asbestos pipe insulation abatement
  • waste line replacement
  • electrical capacity upgrades
  • technology cabling upgrades
  • ADA upgrades
  • asbestos floor tile abatement
  • seismic upgrades
  • foundation stabilization

“When you experience the building every day, you get desensitized,” Roberts said in a previous interview. “When you ask what's wrong, well . . . it's all wrong.”

“The bottom line is this place isn’t stable,” Vickrey said. “We’ve replaced the sewer line over the summer because it had collapsed some. It’s problematic and costs the district money just doing repairs. We struggle to keep up with technology because there aren’t enough connection points, wall materials don’t always allow wireless hotspots to connect to the internet. We’re already maxed out on space and just took in another five or six kids this morning.”

The campus has one modular building, but even that has been split into two classrooms.

Over the summer, maintenance staff had to fill in gaps between stairs and the building, a job that has become an annual chore.

“They do some work with concrete where the steps and doorways settled in spots,” said district Superintendent Bryan Trendell. “They’ll put concrete in and by the next summer it’s settled a bit more, which means they add more concrete in to stabilize it.”

One of the most frustrating problems that Blossom Gulch poses is its inability to accommodate new technology. The district has purchased new teaching tools, such as Chrome Books, but teachers struggle to use them because the classrooms only have four electrical sockets.

First grade teacher Nicole Ault has had to cut out a hole in a bookcase in order to reach the socket behind it, shifting books around every time she wants to switch out plugs.

Not only that, but temperatures can’t be regulated in the classrooms. The only source of heating are old wall heaters beneath single pane windows, which provide no insulation from the outside. Some of these heaters work well, but get the classrooms too hot, while some don’t work hardly at all. In the winter, teachers have been known to bring in their own space heaters.

“Kids wear coats in class sometimes,” Vickrey said.

Fearing the Cascadia quake

Though Blossom Gulch Elementary has an endless list of problems for students, educators and district administrators, none are as serious as the safety concerns.

The Southern Oregon coast has braced for the anticipated 9.2 Cascadia earthquake and resulting tsunami for decades. Gov. Kate Brown even declared Oct. 19 the “Great Oregon ShakeOut Day” to remind the public to be 2 Weeks prepared, meaning people should know how to handle a disaster two hours after, two weeks after, and even two months after.

The U.S. Coast Guard has told The World during Cascadia simulations that Coos County should prepare to be isolated for up to six months after the quake.

Vickrey finds it especially terrifying because Blossom Gulch Elementary sits in the tsunami inundation zone, sometimes called the liquefaction zone. Because of this, the district is unable to secure grants from the state to help with building maintenance or to rebuild the school entirely.

“It’s scary,” Vickrey said. “You think about what would really happen because we’re in a tsunami area, the ground is sinking, then you look at the power lines and the trees and wonder how are you going to get 600 children and 50 adults out of the building quickly and safely?”

When the earthquake hits, Blossom Gulch’s emergency plan tells kids and adults to evacuate to the Marshfield High School campus nearby. However, worst case scenario only gives people a few seconds to run to high ground after the initial earthquake, depending on where the epicenter is, before the tsunami hits.

Because of that tight timespan, Vickrey also plans on at least getting her 600 students to Ferguson Street. Blossom Gulch sits at 15 feet above sea level, but Ferguson takes them to 44 feet in elevation.

“You don’t know how much time you have to run,” she said. “It’s my biggest worry.”

Though this is on everyone’s minds at Blossom Gulch, the building is also ill equipped to undergo emergency lock downs as well. Last year the school was put under two lock downs, one due to Coos Bay Police chasing down a man who was wanted for assault.

“When you go into lockdown, teachers are supposed to close the blinds, block the windows so no one can see in,” Ault said. “Most of our windows in the building have blinds that are 50 to 60 years old and the ropes have fallen and not been repaired, though some have been replaced or restrung.”

Some classrooms have no draperies or shade, so when you walk around the school you can see into the classrooms. Because of this, teachers had taped construction paper on the windows so people can’t see in.

“This is a concern for us too,” Ault said.

As for the Coos Bay BEST Bond that’s on the Nov. 7 election ballot, asking the public for $59.9 million off property taxes over 25 years, Vickrey hopes it passes.

“It’s time,” she said. “Our kids deserve it. Everyone deserves a quality school that is up to standards.”

If the bond passes, it would allow the district to rebuild the Eastside School to move all students out of Blossom Gulch into a new building in a safer part of town.

“I remember when the district first asked for a bond in 2006 and thinking it would never pass in this area,” Ault said. “Then when the district asked for another bond in May, voters started to read about the problems and think about the future of education here. I hope this third time around it passes because when it comes down to it, our kids deserve better.”

Reporter Jillian Ward can be reached at 541-269-1222, ext. 235, or by email at jillian.ward@theworldlink.com. Follow her on Twitter: @JE_Wardwriter.

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