Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

District considers enrollment, survey in school project

Keith Vandervort
Posted 4/18/19

ELY— The school board here, on Tuesday, agreed to conduct a survey of community attitudes on a number of possible renovations and additions to the Ely school campus. That decision came as the …

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District considers enrollment, survey in school project


ELY— The school board here, on Tuesday, agreed to conduct a survey of community attitudes on a number of possible renovations and additions to the Ely school campus. That decision came as the school facilities community task force wrapped up its work after struggling to reach a consensus on a final recommendation to the school board.

Options considered by the task force range from a basic infrastructure upgrade and secure entryway, costing $5 million to $6 million, to a much larger project that could cost as much as $16.5 million.

The community task force met for the last time Tuesday afternoon to review the discussions they have had for the past three months and tried to reach agreement on a recommendation to forward to the school board for their consideration.

They mostly agreed to disagree.

The conclusions of an enrollment projection analysis (see sidebar), conducted by John Powers of Applied Insights, were added to the discussion. The bottom line: K-12 enrollment in ISD 696 is expected to hold steady for the next several years, followed by a modest decline through 2028-29.

A basic renovation plan that includes the linked walkways addition for the three buildings, secure school-day entrance and main office, ADA access, demolition of the existing boiler plant, new roof for the Memorial building, completion of window replacement in the three buildings, air handling upgrades, interior door replacement, student drop-off access, and Washington and Memorial restroom renovations is estimated to cost $5.7 million.

Taking into consideration the wants, needs and wishes for school improvements from the community task force, consultants at Architectural Resources Inc. developed a second option for consideration that included the following additions to the base plan: additional full-size gymnasium, renovated locker rooms in the former swimming pool area, renovated kitchen and cafeteria, classroom renovations in the Memorial and Washington buildings, science rooms upgrades, and Memorial media center renovations.

Those improvements, added to the base plan, are likely to cost as much as $16.5 million. Jodi Zesbaugh, senior consultant for Ehlers, Inc. a school financing company, reviewed the tax impact to property owners in the school district for a bonding referendum for $16.5 million for 20 years.

Based on the estimated market value of a $100,000 residential homestead, a property owner could see a tax increase of $111 per year, or $9 per month for a $16.5 million school bond, according to Zasbaugh. A commercial property owner with a $250,000 estimated market value property could expect an annual property tax increase of $656, or $55 per month, she said.

‘We tend to be very conservative with our numbers, so our hope is that when you issue the bonds, the numbers will be lower than this,” Zesbaugh said. “Hopefully, they are are on the high end of the estimates.”

Taxpayers could have the opportunity to decide on a bonding referendum as early as November. Based on the results of a community survey, likely to be conducted near the end of the school year, the school board will make the final decision on any renovation plan and any bonding referendum this summer. A bonding referendum requires a review by the state Department of Education and must be submitted by the school district in early August to be considered for a November vote.

Community task force member Ross Petersen maintained that the infrastructure portions of the renovation project should be the district’s top priority. “Bonding for $16 million is just wasting our time,” he said. “Most of our resorts here are worth a million dollars, and we want their taxes to go up by three grand? Most of our buildings downtown are overpriced. We’ve had a problem with this for many, many years.”

Superintendent Kevin Abrahamson noted that while the base plan calls for the infrastructure work, the $16.5 million option calls for everything to be done as identified by the committee. “The purpose now is to identify that if ($16.5 million) is too much, what do you take away?” he asked. “Or what do you add to the $5.5 million to get somewhere under the $16.5 million, but keep those things that are important. What can you live without?”

Committee member Warren Nikkola said, “I don’t think the community is going to go anywhere past $9.5 million. “If we get this down to that we might have a prayer.” He asserted that any bonding referendum will be a “hard sell” with the state of the Ely economy.

ARI consultant Katie Hildenbrand said she believed the committee came to an agreement that renovations should be between $5 million and $16 million. “There were a lot of needs brought forth from this committee,” she said. “Going through this process the hope was to bring an understanding to the amount of money that is needed to what needs that the district has.”

Committee member Joe Bianco implored the group to trust in the process. “We owe that to our community,” he said. “We vote for our school board. We have a say in their decision-making process. We can always vote them out if we don’t like what they’re doing. That’s just how this works. That’s the process. There are people who would give anything to help kids in the school, but there are also people who don’t have kids in school and wonder why they should have to pay. It’s not just in Ely, it’s in every school district.”

Petersen contended that the process “has been to drive us to this big project.” He added that many people in the community may not want the big project, but just to complete the basic infrastructure renovations to the buildings. “The process, in my opinion, has been somewhat flawed,” he said. “I don’t want the school board to think that this is what our group came to consensus on. I know I did not come to consensus on $16.5 million.”

Committee member David Wigdahl took a different tack. “I’m disappointed we don’t have a $23 million plan. I was the one who originally wanted music rooms and art rooms, STEM rooms and all that.”

Following the study session, school board members held a special meeting and unanimously agreed to conduct the community survey on the project and a possible bonding referendum.

The survey will cost approximately $9,100, plus the cost of printing and postage, and will be conducted by School Perceptions, of Slinger, Wis.

Every household in the school district will be receiving the survey by mail. Recipients will be able to respond by mail or go online to complete the survey.

School Perceptions President Bill Foster told school board members that a community survey could be completed here in as little as two months, giving the school board ample time to review the date collected and develop a bonding referendum proposal for the state officials to review and approve in time for a Nov. 5 election.


Enrollment projections for ISD 696

John Powers, of Applied Insights, Duluth, provided an overview of his results of a 10-year enrollment projection for ISD 696:

% Over the past 10 years, Ely’s K-12 enrollment has grown 6.1 percent. Growth began in 2015/2016 and has since stabilized;

% Gains in enrollment have been strong in lower grades due in part to several larger-than-usual classes;

% The number of K-12 students living in the district, regardless of which district they attend, grew four percent;

% Ely gains students through open enrollment with a large group coming from the Fall Lake area of the Lake Superior School District, and a growing number of St. Louis County School District, especially Northeast Range;

% The area’s economy has been resilient and is considered to be doing well. The Ely-area population is estimated to have risen since 2010 and is expected to modestly grow through at least 2025. The long-anticipated impact of non-ferrous mineral mining will likely begin, in terms of gains in jobs and population, around 2022 with a minimum of 30-40 new worker households likely to move to Ely;

% K-12 enrollment is expected to decrease 3.9 percent, to around 536, by 2028/2029.


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