Highways and Public Works Minister Richard Mostyn said during a press conference on Thursday that the Ross River School is structurally safe and that classes will start on time. (Mike Thomas/Yukon News)

School to start on schedule for kids in Ross River

Public works minister says school is structurally sound despite sitting on melting permafrost

Yukon’s public works minister says it’s safe for students to go back to school in Ross River when the bell rings to start classes August 29.

Plans to re-level the building, which has been riddled with problems thanks to melting permafrost, could be a couple of years out. But Richard Mostyn said multiple engineering reports have confirmed that the school is safe to occupy.

“It poses no risk to children and staff so classes will resume there in the building this fall,” he said at a press conference August 3.

A structural engineer’s report from May confirmed that the school is safe to occupy and recommended that it be re-leveled this summer.

Instead Mostyn says the government plans to focus on stabilizing the ground underneath the school before trying to fix the structure itself.

“It doesn’t make sense to re-level and then deal with the ground because as you deal with the ground you change the conditions and the school has to be re-levelled again.”

The minister said both the structural engineer who wrote the report in May and a geotechnical engineer hired by the government agree with this approach.

In the short term, the government plans to install more sensors to monitor temperatures under the school. There’s also talk of installing monitors that would track the school’s shifting but installing those will depend on how much they cost, Mostyn said.

As it stands the Ross River school is inspected twice a year to confirm it is still safe.

Mostyn said the school is moving less now than it has in the past. A memo from the geotechnical engineer dated August 2 confirms settlement has been “significantly reduced” but doesn’t provide any specifics.

Movement has caused superficial cracks in the school. Some doors don’t close. Mostyn said work has already started on some cosmetic repairs.

This fall, technical experts will look at how to restore the ground to its previous frozen condition.

Experts are going to review the performance and installation of the school’s thermosyphon system, Mostyn said. That’s the equipment that’s supposed to pull heat away from the ground and prevent permafrost from melting.

When problems with the school were first revealed Mostyn seemed certain that the system was not working. Now it appears he is open to a different answer.

“It is working. Whether or not it’s working to its maximum capacity or to its full effectiveness or doing the job that it’s supposed to be doing, these are questions we’ve got to evaluate,” he said. “Clearly more has to be done and I am looking at how to get that more done.”

What that solution could look like is still unclear. Multiple reports, including the most recent one from the geotechnical engineer, mention adding refrigeration units to the thermosyphon system to restore the permafrost.

One report pegged that cost at $500,000. Mostyn said he hasn’t seen a detailed breakdown of that proposal.

“Frankly, the $500,000 number is a great starting point but I want to see an actual detailed cost accounting of what it is going to cost to put this thing in before I go forward and say yeah, this is what we’re doing.”

Other suggestions include cooling the crawlspace or replacing the foundation.

Whatever solution officials come up with for the ground, it will take a few seasons to figure out whether it’s working, Mostyn said.

“It will have to operate through the heat of a summer then we’ll have to take it through a winter then we’ll have to take it through (another) summer so it could be a couple of seasons before we actually find out if this works.”

Only after the ground is restored to an appropriate temperature would the building be re-levelled, he said.

There’s also the possibility that experts won’t be able to come up with a financially viable solution for the ground.

That could mean looking at building a new school, he said.

“But we’re not there yet.”

Stacey Hassard, interim Yukon Party leader and the MLA for the region, criticized the government for waiting so long to tell the community and the Ross River Dena Council about the future of the school.

“I spoke to one of the councillors this afternoon after I heard this news, they had not been notified that the government was taking this route. It doesn’t appear that this is something that has been discussed with the community.”

The government should have made the decision more quickly, Hassard said.

“And if they were making the decision to do nothing I think should have been relayed to the community.”

Both Mostyn and Education Minister Tracey-Anne McPhee said letters were sent to the community letting people know what is going on.

Mostyn said he plans to meet with residents and has called the First Nation.

Chief Jack Caesar could not be reached in time for today’s deadline.

Contact Ashley Joannou at ashleyj@yukon-news.com