Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

EDITORIAL: School facility planning

Ely taxpayers should monitor the ongoing discussions with interest

Posted

As the Ely School District enters into a school facilities planning effort beginning on Monday, taxpayers in the community would be wise to keep their eyes wide open to ensure against a phenomenon we call “project-creep.”

Folks in Ely should keep in mind that the impetus for this new facility planning effort was a $500,000 state safety grant designed to help fund a joint entrance and connection between the Memorial, Industrial Arts, and Washington buildings. That’s all positive and Ely officials deserve credit for going out and attracting those funds.

Yet the funds quickly sparked discussion of far grander initiatives, with total price tags that would obviously dwarf the school safety grant and require additional taxpayer funding. As we reported last week, Katie Hildenbrand, of Architectural Resources, the consultant hired to assist with the planning effort, said the district’s choices will range from “doing nothing” to bulldozing the campus and starting over with a $60 million new school facility.

That comment should prompt taxpayers in Ely to sit up and take notice. While we don’t anticipate the current planning effort will result in a $60 million remake of the Ely campus, we’ve seen stranger things happen over the years and want to be sure that the taxpayers in Ely are paying close attention.

Architects and other paid consultants can be very good at leading communities in a certain direction. We’ve seen it before in Tower-Soudan, Cook, and Orr, where representatives from both ARI and Johnson Controls, Inc., working together, framed the school district’s strategic planning discussions in a way that many felt led to a pre-determined outcome. There is a built-in conflict of interest with many consultants, particularly when the consultant helping to design “the plan” is in the running as the contractor who would be hired to implement the plan. In the case of JCI and the St. Louis County School District, back in 2009, the planning contract between the company and the school district actually required the district to use JCI to implement the plan they were hired to develop. That gave JCI the ultimate incentive to push for a big facilities project.

Fortunately, the Ely School’s current contract with ARI does not include any such requirement, although it does provide the district a modest financial incentive to stick with ARI through subsequent stages of project development. That’s not uncommon, but it probably doesn’t qualify as best practice.

Some districts have taken steps to protect themselves from such conflicts by hiring consultants for planning purposes who will not be allowed to oversee implementation of the results of their plan. That helps to ensure that the eventual recommendations aren’t tainted, even unconsciously, by the financial considerations of the consultant.

This is not to say that all ideas for facility improvements don’t deserve to be on the table. Yet, major and expensive school facility initiatives should be driven by the community, not by outside consultants, as we saw with the St. Louis County Schools.

The latest facilities planning effort in Ely is already prompting discussions of a fall referendum, so it’s readily apparent that some school officials are envisioning a significant project.

It is, obviously, too early to judge the merits of any plan that might arise out of this process, but we will certainly be watching closely as the discussions proceed. Whenever big public projects are under consideration, those who would pay the bills need to be paying attention.

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