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Is Ely school board ready to act on renovation project?

Study session focuses on timeline, action required to move ahead

Keith Vandervort
Posted 1/28/20

ELY – Members of the ISD 696 school board continued their study of the facilities renovation project Monday night and appear to be moving closer to establishing a timeline for funding and …

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Is Ely school board ready to act on renovation project?

Study session focuses on timeline, action required to move ahead


ELY – Members of the ISD 696 school board continued their study of the facilities renovation project Monday night and appear to be moving closer to establishing a timeline for funding and construction for the long-discussed project.
The district’s architect, Scott Sosalla, of Architectural Resources Inc., presented a refined plan and cost projection for the building renovation, estimated at about $20 million. The district’s lobbyists, Gary Cerkvenik and Jeff Anderson from the Costin Group, walked board members through a funding scenario. District administration officials revealed results of school-wide surveys that highlighted ideas for equipping the school community for 21st century learning.
Board members came away from the meeting with a desire to draft, consider and likely act on a resolution next month to formally move ahead with campus-wide renovations and a bond referendum.
Sosalla detailed his firm’s recent update to the plans for the renovation project. A full-size gymnasium, complete with bleacher seating for as many as 150 people, is now part of the new addition that will be constructed between the Memorial and Washington buildings.
The addition, estimated to cost just over $9 million, also includes industrial and technology classrooms, a community maker space, kitchen, commons area, secure entry for the campus, administrative offices, elementary Phys. Ed. Teaching station and a K-12 media center.
The campus heating system will remain in its present location on the south side of the existing Industrial Arts building, according to Sosalla, “We would demo the top floor off the industrial building, the (existing) media center overhang goes away, and the former boiler plant and all the tunnels go away,” he said.
Improved traffic flow around the campus, including school bus and student drop-off traffic flow would be implemented on the campus, along with improved visitor parking. He assured board members that total access around the building “will make the fire department happier than before.”
Renovations to the Memorial and Washington buildings, including re-roofing, continued window replacement, complete classroom renovations, pool and locker room re-utilization, bathroom renovations, and relocation of the Music and Early Childhood and Family Education departments account for almost $5.9 million of the renovation plan.
Additional infrastructure work accounting for as much as $4.8 million, will include new site utilities, campus-wide water pipe upgrades due to the recent discovery of lead in the water, a basic HVAC upgrade, various demolitions and vehicle access and parking renovations, Sosalla said. A new school bus garage would cost about $100,000.
“We don’t anticipate needing additional electrical upgrades because we will be removing much of the load from the existing industrial arts building,” he said.
While school board members were receptive to the addition of the second competition gymnasium on campus, adding a running track around the football field was only briefly discussed. “I’m really concerned because our track team is running on the streets, and that’s a safety issue,” said board member Tony Colarich.
If the campus space existed for a competition running track with eight lanes, that addition would cost as much as $500,000, Sosalla said. A preliminary campus plan for future growth called for removing the city road (Stuckel Way) between the school and the baseball fields. That option is not part of the current plan.
Sosalla presented various photographs of ARI renovation projects, particularly in Warroad and Moose Lake, to give board members a visual sense of what current school renovations look like and how new technology is being utilized in today’s learning spaces.

How to pay for it

Cerkvenik talked to the board about a funding timeline for the school board to consider. A community survey last year indicated that ISD 696 property taxpayers were generally in favor of considering a referendum authorizing $8 million, or maybe as much as $10 million, in borrowing for a renovation project. That question could be presented to voters later this year.
In addition, a $500,000 school safety grant from the state of Minnesota, and a commitment from the school board last month to kick in as much $500,000 from the district’s unassigned general fund, would be added to the total. As much as $1.6 million (about 60 percent) in funding from the district’s Long Term Facility Maintenance fund could also be utilized.
Cerkvenik said school board members are looking at as much as a $7.3 million gap in funding for the project estimated to cost about $20 million. “Our charge is to figure out how to cover that gap,” he said.
In recent discussions with staff at the Department of Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation and state legislators, Cerkvenik painted a generally positive sense of approval for Ely’s renovation project. “You haven’t voted on anything yet, but we need to have a discussion to bring something to you in order for you to vote by May to put something on a ballot by August,” he said.
Prior to a referendum question being posed to Ely voters, Cerkvenik said he wants approval by the IRRR board to commit to funding help for the district. “We don’t want to go to the voters saying we hope to get funding,” he said. “That wouldn’t go over very well with the citizens.”
He said the IRRR generally meets at the end of the 2020 state legislative session to vote on funding projects. Legislators will reconvene on Feb. 11, and end no later than May 18, as required by state law. “The (IRRR) commissioner may consider having a vote on this earlier than the middle of May because of the importance,” Cerkvenik said.
“I think we have had pretty good support for some of the basic infrastructure. Our job is to identify other potential areas (IRRR) would be interested in funding that are infrastructure related.”
A second piece of the IRRR funding puzzle involves the potential for educational and learning collaboration and cooperation between Ely and other school districts.
Superintendent Erik Erie and administrative staff have been surveying students and teaching staff in considering course availability and additional learning opportunities with other schools, particularly the Northeast Range and Tower schools. These could bring in additional funding from the IRRR’s School Collaboration Fund.
To that end, school administration is considering the benefits and challenges of returning to a seven-period day from the current six-period day, implemented a dozen years ago because of financial concerns, to mirror the learning time of nearby schools to help with collaboration efforts.
“Our teachers are required to teach five classes a day, considered a full load, and we would need to implement overload pay if we add a sixth class to some schedules,” Erie said. “We need to consider the costs to the benefits of such a move.”
Cerkvenik presented a draft resolution authorizing the superintendent to present a renovation plan and funding mechanisms to the school board to vote on, including proceeding with a bonding referendum.
Board chair Ray Marsnik was generally agreeable to developing a resolution for the board to consider and possibly approve at their next meeting on Monday, Feb. 10.
Jeff Anderson, an Ely alumnus and Costin Group member urged school board members to “continue to tell the story” to the community, legislators and other stakeholders. “Ely has some special circumstances being at the end of the road,” he said. “Share the collaboration that has already happened and other plans of future collaboration. We exist here where ceilings fall down and there’s lead in the pipes. There’s flooding. There’s a need for some investment. It seems that the time is right. There seems to be a great deal of support for this.”


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