JBER’s Ursa Major Elementary School will close for at least a year due to earthquake safety

Army Barracks, Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson (Emily Russell/Alaska Public Media)

An elementary school on Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Anchorage will close for at least one school year, after a recent evaluation determined it wouldn’t be safe in a major earthquake.

Ursa Major is one of four Anchorage School District elementary schools on base, and it enrolls about 400 students in kindergarten through sixth grade. A majority are children of military personnel. 

The district is working to have the students start their fall classes at other schools on base, which have some empty classrooms, said district chief operating officer Rob Holland.

“It appears that we do have capacity to keep those families on base, and that is the goal,” he said.

In a letter to families on Monday afternoon, Superintendent Jharrett Bryantt wrote that the district is still determining how the school’s closure will impact transportation and other logistics.

“This will be a large logistical puzzle to piece together over the coming weeks,” he wrote. “Please know — there is a space for you in our ASD community and we will work through this to start the school year strong.”

The district hired an engineering firm to analyze 85 schools after the 2018 earthquake. In March, the firm recommended further analysis of Ursa Major. After removing floor tiles and some walls to examine the building’s concrete structure, they determined last week that the building wouldn’t be safe in a major earthquake.

Holland said the firm will have a full report for the district by the first week of August. 

“That full report will inform us on the scope – and with scope, what cost estimates start to look like – for repairs and/or reconstruction for parts or all of that school,” he said.

Holland said closing the school might seem counterintuitive because it survived the 1984 and 2018 earthquakes with relatively little damage. But he said the school community has supported the district’s decision.

“We can’t just wait until we get further opinions,” he said. “We have to do the right thing, and I think people are very understanding of that.”

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