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TOWER— The Tower Economic Development Authority (TEDA) has approved the first phase of a renovation plan designed to significantly reduce energy usage and improve the learning environment at the Vermilion Country School. The grades 7-12 charter school, located in Tower, is now in its tenth year of operation and has seen a significant enrollment jump in the past year.
The school’s state-approved authorizer recently approved renewing the school’s charter for another five years, expressing considerable satisfaction with the school’s performance. Students at the school have shown steady growth in academic achievement, according to standardized testing.
“I’m thrilled that the TEDA Board unanimously approved the upcoming Vermilion Country School renovation project,” said TEDA President Joe Morin. “The improvements will greatly enhance the school’s learning and working environment, better ensure the facility’s long-term functionality, and help attract additional student enrollments.”
Under Minnesota law, charter schools are prohibited from owning their own buildings, but the state provides considerable “lease aid,” which generally provides schools with about 90 percent of the funding needed to cover lease costs. The school has leased its facility from TEDA since it opened its doors in the fall of 2013.
The renovation plan will include the installation of a suspended ceiling over a 9,000 square foot portion of the building that currently houses most of the school’s classrooms as well as the lunchroom. The existing ceiling is comprised of the underside of the high vaulted roof of the building, which is more than 25 feet high at its peak. The open nature of that portion of the building has made for a noisier environment than is ideal for a school and has forced the school to heat an exceptionally large space, much of which is unusable for students. The heat that gathers near the current high ceiling has contributed to considerable ice damming at the building, which has created occasional problems with water leakage as well.
“By lowering the ceiling, and insulating heavily above it, the renovation helps keep the heat down where the students are, reducing the heating requirements and keeping the roof colder, reducing snow melting and ice damming at the same time,” said TEDA executive director Marshall Helmberger.
The renovation will also provide considerably more separation between classrooms, to reduce the noise level and other distractions that can affect student learning. Existing classroom walls will be extended above the new ceiling and insulated to reduce noise transfer between classrooms.
“The open school environment is wonderful,” said teacher Karin Schmidt. “But it can be a challenge to find a quiet spot at times. This will benefit our academic program.”
All of the school’s existing fluorescent lighting will be replaced with LED lights and all the existing heating ductwork will be insulated to help keep the newly created attic space as cool as possible. A 12-inch blanket of fiberglass batting will be installed on the top side of the suspended ceiling to maintain an effective heat barrier.
The project will also expand the amount of natural light in the building, with the installation of new windows in the front as well as the replacement of a bank of opaque fiberglass panels that were installed as part of the original renovation with insulated reflective glass.
A much smaller second phase of the project, which would be undertaken in the fall, will replace two outside furnaces with new, more efficient models along with air conditioning. Some security upgrades are also under consideration.
Living the lessons
The energy efficiency improvements go hand-in-hand with the school’s environmental education focus. “This will give our students a real-life example of what they’ve been learning at school,” said the school’s new director, Sam O’Brien.
School staff were excited at the investment being made in the building, to support the educational program at VCS. “I am excited to see the school progress and grow,” said teacher Al White.
TEDA’s president sees the investment as recognition of the school’s growing importance to the area. “It’s wonderful how the Vermilion Country School has become an integral part of our community, serving both local and regional students, providing good paying jobs, and supporting TEDA’s on-going mission,” said Morin. “Most important, of course, are the students, some of whom I’ve been told have benefited simply by attending a small, more personal school right in their hometown.” He said he’s heard of examples of students who have struggled at larger schools but have “opened up like a flower blooming” at VCS.
TEDA will fund the project primarily through a loan through Frandsen Bank, although TEDA officials expect to tap at least one source of grant funds and expects to qualify for rebates for the installation of more efficient lighting. The cost of both phases, including a ten percent contingency, is expected to come in around $380,000, although grants and rebates could reduce that figure by as much as ten percent.
Repayment will come from a portion of the school’s lease, while the remainder of the lease helps fund TEDA’s operations. “The charter school building is, by far, TEDA’s most profitable asset,” noted Helmberger, who offered the TEDA board a brief history of the school’s creation and its impact on city finances during its meeting last Thursday.
Helmberger noted that TEDA, which was then under the control of the city council, had paid for the original renovation at the school with a $400,000 bank note and approximately $115,000 in city general funds. To date, the school’s lease has generated $732,025 in payments, while TEDA has paid $444,177 toward retirement of the $400,000 note, which will be fully retired in November of this year. That leaves a net profit of $287,848. For the first six years, those payments accrued to the city, rather than TEDA, which allowed the city to recover all of its investment of general fund dollars and an additional margin in excess of $60,000.
Helmberger noted that the charter school organizers had also arranged for the forgiveness of an outstanding non-recourse loan of approximately $290,000, that the city had with Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation for the construction of the charter school building, built originally for the Powerain car wash manufacturer.
As Helmberger reported to the TEDA board, the net financial return to the city and TEDA from the charter school has come to $433,000 over the past decade, including the debt forgiveness.
“It’s been one of the best investments the city has ever made,” he said.
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