WOODBURN, Ore. – When students return to Woodburn High School on Tuesday, they will still be in portable classrooms – 16 months after a four-alarm fire devastated their school.
The reason the school hasn’t yet been repaired? A squabble among the school district, city and insurance officials over the high costs of building not just a new school, but a safer one.
No one can seem to agree on how the school should be rebuilt and what the insurance should pay.
The fire, started by two teens who ignited some hand sanitizer, heavily damaged the school in May 2012. About 25 percent of class space was wiped out and the district has already spent about $5 million on cleanup and portable and the insurance has covered about $4 million of that.
There’s no timeline for when the school might fully reopen.
The KATU On Your Side Investigators questioned the delay last Spring. At the time, school officials said repairs would take longer because of the district’s choice to keep kids attending class during the repairs. Pace Insurance, the school’s insurance company told a different story – a spokesman said delays in Woodburn boiled down to a dispute over money.
Now it seems, the fight is centered on safety. The school’s claiming that fire codes require major upgrades be built into the repairs, including implementing sprinkler systems and firewalls, and that its insurance policy ought to pay for them.
A second insurance company for the district, Lexington Insurance, is denying the claim, saying it just needs to reach the standard of when the school opened in 1976.
The state's Building Division agreed with the insurance company last week, meaning the school doesn't need to be rebuilt with sprinklers or upgraded firewalls.
The district and its lawyer believe they deserve better.
"The insurance company isn't complying to the terms of their policy and to the policy they sold to us," lawyer Chris Kent said.
School officials are debating what to do next.
“When we get to a point where we’re stuck, we’re going to have to go to the courts to have it resolved and it’s looking likely at this point,” said Superintendent Chuck Ransom.
Other schools' recovery after fires
The On Your Side Investigators found a big difference in the way area school districts managed to recover after fires.
Crestline Elementary School in Vancouver burned down seven months ago and school officials secured state funding immediately. The school is still working with insurance companies, but state funds paid for space and renovations.
The permanent new school is expected to open for the 2014 school year.
Marysville Elementary School burned more than three years ago. It reopened earlier this year with a multimillion-dollar building, including several upgrades, such as more efficient fire alarms and sprinklers.
In that case, insurance covered about $6 million of the damage. Taxpayers paid for roughly another $17 million by passage of several bonds for fire safety upgrades.
The On Your Side Investigators discovered that the school district's insurance carrier for larger, riskier claims, Lexington Insurance, is not traditional. And Oregon is limited in its ability to regulate the insurance company.
Lexington is in Delaware, which is regulated by that state, and Pace in Vermont is also regulated there.
Because Lexington handles high-risk insurance, it can tailor the policy to favor the insurance company and the only thing it can have a say in is its claim practices.
The Oregon Insurance Division can only get involved if the Woodburn School District files a complaint. As of Thursday, no complaint has been filed.