With plans for new year, work continues on Burke school tornado damage
BURKE — Slowly, everything is being put back together at Burke's school.
The school district has been able to take stock of its damage, which affected the school’s middle school building the most, while water and roof damage impacted the entire school campus, which has all 285 students from pre-kindergarten to high school.
“We’re kind of in a case of ‘what you see is what you get,’” Burke Superintendent Erik Person told The Daily Republic this week, showing the exterior of the buildings. “The buildings that look like they’re OK from the outside are still OK. Obviously, we’ve got damage that has be completely fixed or torn down.”
The start of school will take a two-week delay, moving from Aug. 20 to Sept. 4, with a scheduled half-day for students at the start. Person said all of the changes are “barring the unexpected,” which he said has had to become a necessary caveat for all of the planning since the Aug. 6 storm.
The call to back up the start of school to Sept. 4 was the first decision made, and was the most critical, Person said. Meeting all of the deadlines for classroom space in the correct locations will be a lot easier with a full month, and the extra two weeks of work would make meeting deadlines more realistic.
“That just makes getting the school ready to start and be ready for students a very realistic item that we can accomplish,” he said of the change.
In the middle school portion of the building -- which was in name only, as students of all upper age groups take classes in there -- the impacts of the storm are most apparent. The northern wall of the building is gone, and it’s possible to see the frame of the building. That damage affected the school’s gym, band room, stage, locker rooms, weight rooms and four classrooms, all of which will be out of service for the considerable future.
The school district’s 1937 brick building will take in much of the middle school and high school classes. Person commended the efforts of the school’s insurer and a property restoration company that have been working for the last week on the storm damage. The humidity levels in the buildings have also been brought under control, and temporary, weather-resistant roofing has been installed. All together, about 50 people are working to get the school back up to speed. That work to repair water damage should make the rest of the original 1937 building and the district’s elementary school ready to instruct students.
“You can’t really overstate how important those workers have been,” he said. “We needed that professional expertise and they know exactly what to do. They’ve worked really hard to get the buildings under control and start putting things back together again.”
Person said part of the new solutions require creativity. For example, an elementary music classroom will be moved to middle school and high school use, while the old high school library has been turned into two classrooms, and an extra library annex and hallway will house the library’s books and study areas. A mobile classroom is going to be put in the district’s parking area on East 10th Street and will host a high school science lab. The school’s middle school and high school band and choir classes will meet at Burke’s Baptist and Catholic churches, which are both within a block of the school campus.
“Part of it is just moving things around, and taking advantage of where we have a free room or a free hour to make it all work,” he said. “We know we’ve got to be creative and make the best use we can of our space.”
Person said the number of supportive calls and messages from his fellow school administrators has been appreciated. He said Burke’s neighboring school districts have been especially supportive with whatever needs they might fulfill.
The school, like so much of Burke, was lucky the tornado wasn’t worse. Two employees were working in classrooms in the middle school addition about an hour before the tornado hit, Person said. The loss of power at the school before the tornado provided the proper warning for one employee to get out of the building in time.
Earlier this week, there was a large dent in the side of the middle school building where a dumpster from the Burke Building Center down the street landed. Another air conditioner recently installed by Person himself remained where the wall was, but the rest of the outer wall was gone.
On the day after the storm, an emergency school board meeting was called at noon, held in the street outside the damaged building. The agenda for the meeting was handwritten. Person said his message to his staff since the storm was simple.
“This has been a rough start, but this is the beginning of us making it the best school year we’ve ever had,” he said.
And there are some items to look forward to at the school, even if classes will wait a little longer. The Burke football team is on schedule to play Aug. 23 against Lyman at Tolstedt Field in Burke. The field’s scoreboard was damaged and will need to be replaced, but Person said he believes the existing scoreboard will continue to work. Other than a set of nearby bleachers from a baseball field thrown near the track, the football field didn’t suffer serious damage.
The Cougars’ volleyball team opens the season on Aug. 29, and will play its home opener Sept. 3 against Winner in Bonesteel.
Burke athletes previously used both the high school gym and the Burke Civic Center gym -- each located within a block of each other -- for practices, but both were destroyed in the storm. For the fall season, Cougars volleyball practices and games will be held in Bonesteel in South Central’s school gym. (High school students from South Central already attend Burke as part of the district’s joint-powers agreement, which enters its second school year.)
Long-term, Person said some discussions will have to be held about what needs to be rebuilt and restored. He said those talks will take place over the coming months, and will have to consider what Burke needs as a small, rural school district heading into the future.
“We had a lot of people doing stuff for this school and for this town and that makes you feel pretty good,” he said of the last week. “It’s going to be different but it’s going to be OK.”