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Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

Is Ely school renovation running out of money?

Keith Vandervort
Posted 12/8/21

ELY – Costs for the $20 million ISD 696 school campus construction and renovation, dubbed the 21st Century Learning Facility Project, are creeping ever upward, causing construction managers and …

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Is Ely school renovation running out of money?


ELY – Costs for the $20 million ISD 696 school campus construction and renovation, dubbed the 21st Century Learning Facility Project, are creeping ever upward, causing construction managers and school officials here to adjust priorities to finish the job.
At a study session Monday night, Superintendent Erik Erie announced that the Ely school board postponed a special meeting that was to be held that night to approve the bids received for $3.5 million worth of renovation work on the Washington and Elementary buildings.
That postponement decision was made at a school board facilities meeting last week when the latest bids were reviewed.
“We wrestled with those items in the budget and took a look at what’s left,” Erie said. “Some decisions were made to adjust priorities.”
The school board is expected to make a decision regarding the third bid package at their regular business meeting on Monday, Dec. 13.
“It is possible we may be removing the windows (replacement) to be able to do things like finishing the boys locker room,” he said.
Other items listed in the notes from the facilities committee meeting on Dec. 1 also indicated that building doors and the Special Education facility relocation are high on the priority list. The purchase of all furnishings for the renovation project have been put on hold. Repurposing of existing cafeteria seating, band room stands and chairs and Industrial Technology desks, chairs and tables, and other equipment are all likely necessary to help cut costs.
“There is some inflationary building cost, impacted by COVID-19, that has impacted (our project) and everybody else,” Erie said. “We might use the savings from removing the windows (replacement).”
Construction managers are expected to provide a “better picture” next Monday night on the district’s next steps in getting the project to the finish line next fall.
Erie was quick to say that the partially-completed campus window replacement project will ultimately be finished.
“The windows are something we can do through the LTFM (long-term facility maintenance budget),” he said. “There was already a plan, even before the building project, to finish the windows. We will have to figure out where and how that fits in.”
Additional funding sources were also discussed at the recent facilities committee meeting.
“There didn’t seem to be an appetite about going back to the taxpayers and saying that because of inflation and COVID we’re going to ask for more money,” he said.
He noted that the Costin Group, the school district’s lobbyist, as well as the district’s financial consultant, Ehler’s and Associates, Inc. are also on task “to figure out what we can do,” so the school project can be finished.
Erie also noted that costs related to developing a campus-wide “crisis plan” are under consideration.
“There are some things, such as panic buttons, and colored (emergency) lights for Industrial Arts, music and areas where there is a lot of noise, that might need a visual warning to consider.”
Safe Learning Plan
The Ely Safe Learning Plan Advisory Council (ELSPAC) completed a plan for 2021-22 that allows for ISD 696 to consider rolling back the protective face mask requirement, put in place at the beginning of the school year because of increasing cases of COVID-19.
Slight modifications to the plan were made last week following the latest ELSPAC meeting, but Erie and the school principals are satisfied to present the plan to the school board to approve at their Dec. 13 meeting.
The metrics or COVID-19 conditions that will be considered to initiate a face mask recommendation, rather than a requirement, include:
• Local ZIP Code case report below the “high transmission” range for three consecutive weeks.
• Opportunity for all students in the Washington Elementary building ages 5 to 11 to be fully vaccinated by Jan. 30, 2022.
• Local COVID-19 outbreaks and conditions in the school and Ely community will be considered prior to face mask protocol changes.
There are some exceptions to the metrics, including an increase in positive cases in a classroom or among activity participants, if the local hospital is required to divert patients to another facility due to an increase in local COVID cases, and if the local transmission rate moves to a “high” level for three consecutive weeks.
Erie said the “high” transmission level, using CDC guidelines, is a rate of 100 cases per 100,000 people. The Ely area is at a rate of approximately 563 cases per 100,000 people. “We are a ways away from that, but at least we have a number that people can look at to determine if we are in the high or substantial or low rate,” he said.
The Ely school current positive COVID-19 case count on Monday was at 20.
“Since last Thursday (Dec. 2) when the cumulative COVID-19 rate was at 67 for the 2021-2022 school year, the count has gone up to 74,” Erie said. “We had 48 positive cases for all last school year. This lets you know what we have been dealing with.”
School board members considered approving the Safe Learning Plan next week or waiting until January. With the current local COVID case rate hitting the stratosphere, waiting a month won’t appear to make any difference because the face mask requirement will likely remain in place well into 2022.
In St. Louis County, the vaccination rate for children ages 5-11 years is at 26 percent. The vaccination rate for youth ages 12 to 18 years is at 48 percent.
According to Erie, an Emergency Temporary Standard from OSHA may require employees in workplaces with more than 100 employees (that includes Ely schools) to be vaccinated to remain employed there. A federal court is considering the order and could have a decision by Dec. 10, so Erie, under guidance from the Minnesota School Boards Association, suggesting waiting on collecting data on vaccination rates for ISD 696 employees.
Vermilion Comm-unity College currently requires all their employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19, or they are terminated.
“Right now, we could be asking our employees if they are vaccinated,” Erie said. “There is no HIPAA (Health Insurance Portabiity and Accountability Act) violation if we do.”
He related that at least two school districts in the northern Minnesota region are offering incentives for their employees to get vaccinated.
School board member Tom Omerza pushed back on those in the Ely community who vehemently pushed back on the school district’s face mask requirement.
“We’ve been mask, mask, mask. What about talking about vaccinations?” he asked. “If we get to a certain point with vaccinations on campus then we go to ‘masks recommended.’”
He did not call for a vaccination mandate.
“If we are able to get (students and staff) vaccinated, then why the heck are we focused on masks so much when we can tell parents, and tell staff, that if we get to a certain (vaccination percentage) point, we can go to a mask recommendation. That is something we can shoot for, too.”
School board chair Ray Marsnik agreed.
“I would like to see something like that, like 80 percent or something like that,” he said.
The ELSPAC may consider amending the Safe Learning Plan to include a COVID-vaccination rate metric to consider for dialing back public health protocols.


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