January 22, 2009 in Washington Voices

Snow removal costs, damage add up at schools

By The Spokesman-Review
 
J. BART RAYNIAK photo

Shovelers from Alliance Snow Removal hurry to remove the snow from the roof at Broadway Elementary School in the Spokane Valley Jan. 6. Some school districts hired crews to shovel school roofs. Others rented heavy equipment to help with snow removal.
(Full-size photo)

A couple of weeks ago some school roofs were sagging under the weight of several feet of snow. Now it is school district budgets that are sagging as snow-removal costs are added up, with West Valley School District paying $15,000 to partially remove snow off just one school.

Some relief may be in sight, however. Insurance is expected to cover at least some of the costs, and now a move is afoot through Educational Service District 101 to collect a master list of snow-removal expenses and damage costs incurred by Spokane County school districts in order to get reimbursement through FEMA.

The count stands at $3.3 million in damages and $690,000 for snow removal for districts in Spokane County, said Joe Madsen, safety and risk manager for ESD 101. Those numbers do not include Spokane Public Schools, which opted to submit its own information separately.

The dollar amounts are estimates that the districts collected in less than two days, Madsen said. It could be a while before districts find out how much money they’ll be getting. “Keeping in mind this is the federal government, it could be a couple of weeks to a month,” he said.

The federal money will also have to be compared to expenses that will be covered by insurance policies. “Those items covered by insurance will probably not be covered by FEMA,” Madsen said.

“At this point our costs are out of pocket,” said Central Valley spokeswoman Melanie Rose. “Hopefully we’ll be able to recoup some of it.”

The snow that accumulated over the Christmas break was light and fluffy. But as one final wet snowfall happened over the first weekend in January, districts began to worry about the weight. Most Valley school districts remained closed Jan. 5, 6 and 7 to remove snow from schools and other buildings.

Central Valley spent $255,000 on snow removal efforts, which included hiring crews to shovel 14 school roofs, renting heavy equipment to remove snow, hiring structural engineers and paying maintenance crews overtime. “We are preparing to submit a claim to our insurance carrier for the cost of removing the snow loads from our roofs,” she said. “We anticipate a high level of reimbursement for this preventative maintenance activity.”

West Valley paid a hefty $15,000 fee to shovel part of Ness Elementary, partly because of the sharp rise in price to hire crews. “The price of snow removal went up,” said Deputy Superintendent Doug Matson. “I just think it was supply and demand.”

The good news for the district is that a structural engineer mandated the snow removal at Ness because of the load on the roof, which means the district’s insurance will kick in and cover the cost except for a $1,000 deductible.

The district also had $2,000 in damage to its maintenance facility and spent money on heavy equipment and staff overtime. Matson estimates the district paid for 51 hours in plowing over two weeks. “We were almost plowing around the clock,” he said. “We pulled all the custodial/maintenance crews and had them up on the roofs instead of cleaning the buildings. The thaw that came through on (Jan. 6) saved us.”

Liberty School District in Spangle got lucky with its snow-removal costs and is only out about $200 to replace food that was in the cooler when the power went out. They also hired a structural engineer, who determined that the elementary school was over its load limit in three areas where drifted snow had accumulated.

“In the last 20 years, we’ve only had to remove snow from our roof once,” said Superintendent Bill Motsenbocker.

When Motsenbocker couldn’t find any available crews to hire to shovel school roofs, he turned to the Airway Heights Corrections Facility for an inmate work crew. It took a day and a half to get approval and the request had to be cleared by the governor’s office, Motsenbocker said. A work crew of minor offenders came for three days to shovel the roofs and then dig out fire hydrants and emergency exits.

Motsenbocker said the inmate work crew did an excellent job. “They were respectful and very courteous,” he said. “They worked from morning until it got dark every day. Those guys just really worked hard. Talk about work ethic.”

The small district’s kitchen staff turned out each day to prepare a hot lunch for the crew. “They thought they’d died and gone to heaven,” he said. The usual charge for a work crew is 30 cents per hour per inmate. But the district ended up paying nothing. “We really went out of our way for them and they told us there was no charge.”

East Valley School District sent out a call for volunteers to clear its schools and got about 60 employees, students and parents. That helped hold the costs down to just over $20,000 said district spokeswoman Judi Christianson.

Freeman School District also relied on volunteers to clear its school roofs. The district did have to pay to have heavy equipment move snow from its parking lots into fields. An ice chipper was rented to remove ice that had built up around doors. “We don’t have the heavy-duty equipment,” said Superintendent Sergio Hernandez.

Hernandez estimates the district spent $14,000 on snow removal. “The scary part is, we’re not even one month into winter,” he said. “We’re hoping that the bulk is over.”


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