Maintenance records show Medford School District officials have known for at least 12 years that Jackson and Roosevelt elementary schools needed major structural upgrades.
Some improvements, such as reinforcing entryways, were made over the years as temporary fixes. But when the buildings deteriorated to what are now considered dangerous conditions is unclear, as maintenance records are incomplete.
The Medford School Board abruptly shuttered Jackson and Roosevelt in June on the recommendation of Portland-based DCI Engineers Inc. and dispersed their students to four other schools.
DCI found the buildings could collapse in an earthquake because of failing trusses in the circa-1930s gymnasiums and crumbling brick in the oldest portions of the schools, built in 1910-11.
The bricks, initially thought to be cracking on the exterior of the buildings because of weather exposure, are crumbling on both the outside and two layers within, the firm concluded.
"I was quite surprised the district shut them down as quickly as they did," said Galen Anderson, retired Medford schools business and facilities director (1986-2005). "It's not as if we didn't know those buildings had to be upgraded and retrofitted.
"We knew the work had to be done, but we didn't have the funding to do it."
A $189 million bond package approved by voters in November included a total of about $15 million for major renovations for Jackson and Roosevelt.
District officials are uncertain whether they'll move forward with the Jackson and Roosevelt projects, as some of the campus buildings might have to be demolished, and escalating construction costs have put the bond package $12.8 million in the red.
The school board appointed a seven-member bond projects task force to devise options for trimming some of the expenses. Its recommendations are expected in October. It will include a suggestion for what should be done with the Jackson and Roosevelt campuses.
The first record of a structural study at Jackson dates back to 1987. The study by engineer Phillip McCulloch found that Jackson was generally in good structural condition.
But he made a series of recommendations to extend the life of the school, including mending a broken truss in the 1937 gymnasium.
There are no records showing whether the truss was repaired.
DCI's report in June did not find broken trusses, but it did note that the gym's trusses were of flimsy construction and held in place with nails rather than bolts.
McCulloch also recommended in 1987 repairing and sealing brickwork in certain areas where bricks appeared to be loose.
He advised the district to commission a structural inspection of the school every five to seven years.
"The building complex is in fundamentally sound structural condition and with the correction of items recommended above, the structural integrity of the facility can be maintained for 15 to 20 years into the future, and possibly beyond," McCulloch wrote in his report. "I recommend that a thorough structural inspection be conducted every five to seven years, unless a problem develops sooner.
"I base my conclusions on a somewhat limited visual inspection process due to obvious accessibility problems. However, I have not seen any evidence of a potentially serious structural problem except as noted elsewhere in this report."
It's unclear whether the district followed any of McCulloch's recommendations, as records don't detail any repairs. Anderson and retired Medford schools Superintendent Steve Wisely (1985-2003) said they don't recollect what happened.
Medford schools facilities director Mark Button, who joined the district about a year ago, said he hasn't been able to find work orders in district records.
"There was no preventative maintenance," Button said. "It was reactive and not recorded."
Wisely disputes that claim.
He said maintenance was not neglected, and all critical problems were addressed.
Eight years after McCulloch's study, Medford-based Marquess & Associates Inc. submitted a proposal to evaluate the structural integrity of Jackson and Roosevelt and develop options for strengthening entryways, chimneys, stairwells, brickwork, roofing, flooring and fire escapes.
The district elected to reinforce exits, entryways and parapets because those were the only seismic upgrades the city required at the time.
"The full proposal was never executed," said architect Gary Afseth, who worked with Marquess. "The district said they would further upgrade those buildings under the next bond issue."
Meeting minutes from Sept. 27, 1995, recorded that Marquess reported Jackson was in generally sound condition and with seismic modifications (see clarification notice below) could continue structurally to be used as a school. The minutes make no mention of Roosevelt.
Randy Cleveland, of Marquess, said he agrees with the decision to shutter the schools.
"I think it would be a very good idea to replace those buildings from a structural and safety standpoint," Cleveland said. "I believe we felt that 12 years ago, but due to limited funding, the district decided to strengthen the entryways so they wouldn't have bricks falling. That's where our work was limited in 1995."
Wisely said no one ever told him the buildings were in danger of collapsing.
"I can never remember anybody saying, 'These buildings are so bad we need to shut them down now,'" Wisely said. "Otherwise, we would have done that."
In summer 1996, contractors began lowering steel frames by helicopter into the open roofs at Jackson and Roosevelt to help stabilize entryways.
But work was halted at Roosevelt in August when Adroit Construction notified the district that the mortar on the school was too delicate to hold drilled anchors. Workers later solved the problem by putting braces on the bricks to stabilize them.
"The brick in this area in 1911 was a pressed brick, not fired, so the buildings were flawed from the day they were built," Afseth said.
The next Medford schools bond measure in November 2002 did not specifically include seismic upgrades for the two schools.
Voters ultimately defeated the $79 million measure, which focused on building a skills center and a new middle school.
One explanation for the change in the district's response to the structural issues at the schools is increasing recognition that a significant earthquake could shake Southern Oregon, McCulloch said in an interview.
"The problem with public buildings is bonds can be passed to build them, but school districts and other government entities often don't have the money to maintain them over time," Afseth said. "The Medford School District has a very difficult decision to make about what to do with these schools."
Reach reporter Paris Achen at 541-776-4459 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Clarification: The original version of this story omitted the word "seismic" in this sentence. This version has been corrected.