Austin’s Brown Elementary to stay shuttered because of unstable floor

The Austin district’s T.A. Brown Elementary, shuttered abruptly after school on Thursday, will remain closed.

The supports that hold up the floor in classroom wings and the cafeteria have deteriorated so badly that structural engineers and district leaders fear a portion of the floor could collapse.

“We’re not going to use the facility again. That we do know,” Superintendent Paul Cruz said.

Engineers who performed an assessment of the school said the damage is too costly to fix.

“We don’t recommend this be repaired at all,” said Anna Boenig, vice president of P.E. Structural Consultants Inc., the firm that discovered the damage.

Starting Wednesday, the 360 students who attended the North Austin school will be divided and sent to two other campuses: prekindergarten and kindergarten students will attend Reilly Elementary, located about two miles away.

But the majority of the students will be bused to the former Allan Elementary in far East Austin, about a 45-minute bus trip during peak hours. That will likely pose problems for T.A. Brown students, 96 percent of whom are from low-income families. The new arrangements are expected to continue at least until the end of the school year. District officials are hosting two meetings, one in English and one in Spanish, on Saturday to discuss the school’s closure with families.

Alvino Cisneros, the president of Brown’s Parent Teacher Association, said the school had never reported any problems with the floor or any part of the building. The district hasn’t shared many details yet about the school’s closure, he said.

“We are all surprised by what happened,” he said.

Cisneros, who has a 9-year-old daughter in fourth grade and an older daughter who went to Brown, said he wouldn’t be particularly affected if his daughter had to go to a different school starting Monday, but “I understand it won’t be easy for everybody to take their children” elsewhere.

The problems were found by structural engineers who visited the campus as part of a months-long assessment of all district facilities. They spotted the cracked supports when they first inspected the crawl space between the flooring and the subfloors in the second week of October. District leaders made the decision to close the school Thursday, after receiving the information and meeting with the engineers that day.

“It’s the school district’s responsibility to keep kids, family and staff safe, healthy and in a good learning environment,” said Trustee Ann Teich, who represents the area where T.A. Brown is located. “So when these things happen we drop everything else. I hope families understand that.”

Boenig said the damage was likely caused by moisture that became trapped and, over time, caused cracks in the structure.

The original T.A. Brown campus, made up of a dozen classrooms, a library, a cafeteria and a media room, was built 60 years ago. The average age of district buildings is 40 years old, and some campuses are a century old.

“I’m surprised we haven’t heard of similar issues in other schools, just because they’re so old,” Trustee Paul Saldaña said.

About 60 other schools, nearly half of the campuses in the Austin district, have crawl spaces similar to those at T.A. Brown, but none had similar damage, engineers said.

The district conducted a facilities review in 2011 as part of a facilities master plan, but it didn’t include examining crawl spaces, Cruz said.

The district’s deferred facilities maintenance needs already exceeded $1.5 billion, and the new assessment will likely show the figure to be much higher.

The long-term plan for T.A. Brown could include tearing down the building and replacing it with a new one, but it’s too early to say because the decision will be made in conjunction with development of a master plan for all of the district’s facilities, Cruz said. Under the plan, the district could recommend closing multiple schools and replacing them with newer buildings.

The school board will use the information to determine whether to call for a bond package in November 2017.

Principal Veronica Sharp on Friday said the transition might be difficult on her school’s families, but the support from the other schools welcoming them has been positive.

“We are a community,” she said. “The building does not define us. We did try to keep the majority of our campus together. So we were thinking about community and keeping us as one.”

Staff writer Alejandro Martinez-Cabrera contributed to this story.

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