By Kailey Fisicaro • The Bulletin

Ahead of what may well be another big winter, Bend-La Pine Schools leaders are thinking about snow removal, concentrating on being proactive versus reactive in their approach. The careful planning follows last year’s trials in clearing snow loads from roofs, which prompted one school board member to describe the district as getting “hammered” by the public.

Depending on who you talk to, last winter dumped snow of nightmarish or delightful proportions. The roof over an elementary school gym collapsed — but the snow was in other ways wonderful. Big powder days at Mt. Bachelor gave snow enthusiasts the chance to enjoy one of the best skiing seasons in recent memory, and the wet winter left Central Oregon its largest snowpack in years.

No one was inside the gym at Highland Magnet at Kenwood School when the roof collapsed under the weight of snow Jan. 12. But the incident was a close-enough call to raise the question of “what if?” Emails between staff, board members and structural engineers The Bulletin received in response to a public records request reveal the amount of work that went on behind the scenes to catch up with snow removal and, at times, the frustration the district and board members sensed from the public.

Updated practices

Bend-La Pine will continue with a new guideline it established last winter that requires district staff to contact structural engineers when snow on roofs gets to 1 foot in Bend or 18 inches in La Pine and Sunriver. Before last winter, no such guideline existed; last school year was the first time anyone at Bend-La Pine Schools could remember having to remove snow from school roofs in Bend. The last time it happened anywhere in the district was at La Pine High School in 1992, according to Mike Tiller, Bend-La Pine’s director of facilities and maintenance.

Structural engineers called out to roofs with a foot of snow in Bend or 18 inches in La Pine or Sunriver will weigh the snow to determine next steps. In Bend, school roofs are built to withstand 30 pounds per square foot, while in south Deschutes County the roofs are designed for 55 pounds per square foot.

“One of the things we’re doing proactively, we’re going to put out (a request for proposals) for contracted snow removal services,” Tiller said.

The school district has added six snow blowers to its fleet of about 40 total, which Tiller said cost about $4,000 each.

Hiring contractors ahead of time to be on standby for snow removal is a smarter financial decision than just buying a lot of its own new equipment, Tiller said. The school district will be the contractors’ No. 1 priority and will have some of their own equipment to add to the removal efforts. But if the school district doesn’t need their help, it won’t owe them money.

Last winter about 400 people worked on snow removal for the district, including Bend-La Pine facilities staff, custodians and contract workers.

Shortcomings last year

Prior to the roof collapse, snow removal was focused on the ground; snow and ice removal from roofs was mostly in reaction to issues such as leaks.

Late morning Jan. 10, two days before the gym roof collapse, Tiller received an email with a structural engineer’s advice on snow loads: “Anything over 1-1/2 to 2 feet of snow we strongly recommend removing the snow.” Later that day, Tiller forwarded the email to the district’s maintenance supervisor, writing “Looks like we need to come up with a plan......asap,” to which the other Bend-La Pine staffer responded, “Oh goody,” before talking about making plans in the morning.

Snow load removal would begin the next day.

The city of Bend, Bend Fire Department, Bend Police Department and Deschutes County sent warnings, too, about snow loads on roofs for three days before the gym roof collapse — from Jan. 9-11.

Tiller said he understands criticism of Bend-La Pine’s approach last year could be that it was more reactive than proactive, but the winter was like never before.

“It was unprecedented what happened,” Tiller said.

To that end, some emails district staffers received from parents regarding the intense winter were understanding. One parent who asked for early-release Wednesdays to become full days to make up for time missed during snow days started out her Jan. 20 email to Superintendent Shay Mikalson this way: “I would like to acknowledge the extreme stress you must have been going through these past few weeks.” But others were simply frustrated about the type of snow removal that was taking place versus the way the district communicated about it.

“Although I appreciate the letter of reflection on the last month of falling snow and how it (affected) our children’s school I think you are mistaken on the work your crews were actually performing,” one parent wrote in an email to Mikalson on Jan. 21. “I can speak from experience that the schools our children attend did not have crews removing snow during winter break nor during the heavy snow falls that closed them down.”

Mikalson responded Jan. 22 by saying, “I understand and respect your perspective,” before offering to meet in person to hear the parent’s concerns and give her “a deeper understanding of the work our team was doing over the last month or more.”

School board members, too, were frustrated by the way the district was talking about snow removal.

When Julianne Repman, the school district’s communications director, sent a preview of a press release on snow removal to the school board, board member Peggy Kinkade, then-chairwoman, shared her concerns.

“The press release and closure information are so thin on details that I think it feeds the frustration. I’d like to see the public get more detail …” Kinkade said in a Jan. 16 email to Repman, fellow school board members and Mikalson. “I think the board is supportive, but we’re getting hammered and the public is getting madder. Just my voice urging for more transparency.”

Then-school board member Nori Juba said he agreed with Kinkade 100 percent, adding “our PR is frustrating the board and the community.” School board member Julie Craig also asked for more detail to be sent to the community.

Mikalson defended the district’s communications, writing that engineers had given Bend-La Pine “a twist in planning” that day at 4 p.m.

“We worked to immediately get out what we could to families when it became apparent we cannot open school tomorrow. I believe our communication has been outstanding up to today’s release. I understand the concern around brevity on our most current release and Julianne and I are working as I type.”

Mikalson added that any kind words that could be passed on to the district team “would be greatly appreciated as they have been working incredible hours and frankly are past hitting a wall!”

The district staff sent out the press release as is.

Costs of a big winter

Last winter Bend-La Pine exceeded its snow removal budget by about $1.5 million, which it took from reserves. The school board is still deciding how quickly to build the reserve back up, and the school district is seeking relief funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

FEMA typically covers about 75 percent of incidents it approves for relief, according to Repman. For comparison, following the Two Bulls Fire, it took about a year and a half for local agencies to get relief money, she said.

Other damages incurred last winter in Bend-La Pine, such as damage to roofs made accidentally in the snow removal process, may be covered by insurance. And insurance will cover a new, $4.2 million gym to replace the one at Highland Magnet. Following the roof collapse, the structure was torn down the same day.

— Reporter: 541-383-0325,