Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

IRRR commits to Ely school building project

$7 million grant requires successful taxpayer referendum

Keith Vandervort
Posted 3/26/20

ELY – If voters here approve a $10 million bond measure later this year, the Department of Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation will kick in an additional $7 million towards a major facility …

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IRRR commits to Ely school building project

$7 million grant requires successful taxpayer referendum


ELY – If voters here approve a $10 million bond measure later this year, the Department of Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation will kick in an additional $7 million towards a major facility upgrade for the Ely schools. The IRRR board unanimously approved that funding proposal last week.
The $20 million project, in the works for months by school officials, combines renovations of the existing campus buildings and new construction of a portal linking the Washington and Memorial buildings. That new connection also includes new classrooms, a cafeteria and commons area, a secure entry and additional gymnasium space. The Industrial Arts Building would be demolished to make room for the new structure.
The nine-member IRRR board of directors is comprised of state legislators, chaired by Rep. Rob Ecklund, and includes Sens. Tom Bakk, Justin Eichorn, Carrie Ruud and David Tomassoni, and Reps. Sandy Layman, David Lislegard, Dale Lueck and Julie Sandstede. Eichorn and Lueck were absent for the meeting.
IRRR Commissioner Mark Phillips recommended the allocation through the state agency’s Iron Range School Consolidation and Cooperatively Operated School Account, which came from a request developed by ISD 696 officials in consultation with the Costin Group, the district’s lobbying firm, Architectural Resources Inc., the district’s architect, and agency staff.
ISD 696 Super-intendent Erik Erie discussed the successful grant proposal this week with the Timberjay. “I credit our principals, Megan Anderson and Anne Oelke, who two weeks prior made a trip to St. Paul to meet with the Iron Range delegation and some of the IRRR board members to personally tell each legislator about our project and distributed our project outline,” he said.
Erie also attended the School Superintendents Day at the capital and met with five of the nine IRRR board legislators to address the proposal and make the case for Ely schools. Erie had expected to bring a contingent of more than two dozen stakeholders including school administrators, teachers, school board members, parents and students to St. Paul last Wednesday to further make the case for the funds, but because of precautions over the coronavirus pandemic they made their case via a conference call instead.
Erie said that both Bakk and Tomassoni reaffirmed that the funds were contingent on the Ely School District passing the referendum. With the coronavirus closing businesses and schools, scheduling a taxpayer referendum election as early as August could be a concern. Sen. Bakk said he thought the environment was not as positive now to ask voters for more taxes.
The resolution requires that Ely voters pass a referendum by the end of the year to access the IRRR funding. “We have a Dec. 31 deadline on getting our (bonding) referendum approved,” Erie said.
The district’s timeline calls for the facility renovation plan to be submitted to the Minnesota Department of Education for approval by May 10. The school board would need to authorize conducting the voter referendum by May 11 in order to have voters cast ballots on the measure on Tuesday, Aug, 11.
If successful, project bidding could begin on Oct. 1 and a groundbreaking could be held on March 1, 2021.
“The August vote is an ideal timeline because that gives us time to go through the bidding process in October, which is the ideal time for building construction firms,” Erie said.
Erie noted that a property tax impact projection showed that a $10 million bond would result in a property tax increase of about $5 per month, or $60 per year (for 20 years), on a $100,000 residential property in the district.
The balance of the $20 million project will come from the district’s general fund, a state school safety grant and long-term maintenance bonding.
In making the case to the IRRR board, Erie stressed that the project will create a new building between the Washington and Memorial buildings that would be added to house advanced technology classrooms, industrial arts, a new kitchen, classrooms, community space, and an elementary gym.
The plan also outlined several key points including:
• It would cost more to renovate the 1909 Industrial Arts Building than demolish it and build a new connection.
• The overall campus footprint will be reduced by 7,600 square feet, saving long-term operating and maintenance costs.
• The preschool program will be relocated to either the Memorial or Washington buildings.
• Technology upgrades will allow staff to use hand-held devices rather than just textbooks.
• Safety and security will be improved with a new comprehensive entrance/exit and community access plan.
In addition, the proposal includes an area for “maker space” programming, new industrial arts/technology-based classrooms, a new modern media center and relocation and expansion of the fine arts programs.
The project budget calls for nearly $8 million for the new addition, about $5 million for renovations to the existing Washington and Memorial buildings, and $7 million in infrastructure work including demolition and site work, HVAC upgrades, and lead contaminant and water piping replacement.
Erie also highlighted the economic development component to the project, as well, noting that a 20-month construction period would create many construction jobs and require as much as 95,000 hours of labor.
“While we will be looking at the local economy (in light of any COVID-19 pandemic effects), what better way to spur our local economy than to have $20 million worth of construction going on in this community next year?” Erie said.


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