ELY – School officials here Monday considered a more ambitious building and facilities option with an eye toward the future, while addressing the immediate goal of providing a safe and secure learning environment for students and faculty at ISD 696.
With a price tag of nearly $20 million and timeline for completion in 2023, the plan, presented by Architectural Resources Inc. president Scott Sosalla, won strong support from the district’s lobbying firm and officials from the Department of Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation who were present at the school board’s study session.
While not making any official decision, school board members generally agreed to move forward with the ambitious plan that calls for the replacement of the Industrial Arts building with a new structure between the Washington and Memorial buildings.
The facility renovation would provide for a secure school-day entrance, an open commons/cafeteria space, new kitchen with updated receiving area, relocated district and administrative offices, combined media center, an elementary physical education area, multiple learning areas or modules for industrial arts, STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, Math) education, and a maker space or community learning area.
In addition, campus-wide renovations would include a new music education suite, early learning education area, updated locker rooms with possible community access to a weight room and fitness area, relocated district vehicle garage, and improved traffic flow around the campus to allow for safer school bus and student drop-off.
Future growth for athletics, including a new stadium and competitive track and field facilities, would also be possible.
Superintendent Erik Erie, essentially the point-person on any district facility renovation, presented his justification for the school board, staff, students and community to consider the plan.
“The school board and community have been talking about plans like this for over a decade,” he said. “There have been many conversations and now we think the timing is right. The voters have said, through the recent community survey, that they are prepared to invest in the future of Ely’s public school and their students.”
He reviewed the considerations that went into the facility improvement process, starting with the need for a safe and secure learning environment by linking the campus buildings. “The goal of many schools is to create a small, quality, state-of-the-art learning environment and community within their school,” he said.
With the renovation plan, according to Erie, new tools for students at ISD 696 would include upgraded technology with access to one-to-one devices, STEAM pods (flexible learning areas) or classrooms, new fine arts teaching and physical education spaces, 21st century industrial technology and education for the trades and manufacturing, pre-school and early childhood education, a 21st century media center, and spaces available for community use.
School administration recently surveyed staff and students on the needs for future learning. K-5 Principal Anne Oelke related a conversation she had with a fourth-grade student. “He wants to be a professional skate boarder,” Oelke said. “He said he will need to learn a lot of foreign languages and culture studies so he can travel the world.”
Megan Anderson, 6-12 principal, said she is impressed with the diverse opinions received from students in their surveys about 21st century learning needs.
Erie noted that one option for the Ely school district to consider in providing more learning opportunities for students is to modify the school day from a six-period to a seven-period learning environment. “I am hoping we can soon have more discussion and study on that,” he said.
ISD 696’s lobbying firm, the Costin Group, made the case for considering the $20 million facilities renovation plan. Gary Cerkvenik, who originally floated the idea of replacing the Industrial Arts building with a more modern learning environment, said he recognizes the need for Ely school officials to maintain their independence and financial strength while at the same time modernize and leveraging to increase the resources available to reach those goals.
“We recognize the community doesn’t have unlimited tax capacity and we have to put forward a conservative, reasonable plan that addresses your long-term needs,” Cerkvenik said. “In working with Scott (Sosalla from ARI), we have to respect the architectural heritage of your buildings. You have a nice campus that people are proud of.”
He noted that safety and security, along with respecting the activities that already take place on campus must also be maintained. “Having good traffic flow around the campus, and having multiple uses for the spaces are also important considerations,” he said.
Financing and a timeline
The proposed plan could cost close to $20 million. According to the community survey, district voters may be willing to absorb a property tax increase over the next 20 years amounting to as much as $10 million. “Let’s keep it simple, Cerkvenik said. “If we can figure out where we get a dollar from the community and a dollar to match, I think then we have something that we can be proud of selling to the community that they would buy into. How do we get to $19.8 million when we have $10 million?”
He started with the $500,000 in state safety grant funding coming to ISD 696. The school board has indicated that as much as $500,000 in General Fund dollars could be used for the project. About half of the Long Term Maintenance Fund levy, $1.6 to $1.8 million could be applied to the project’s roof and window replacement components.
“Add those things together (assuming a $10 million bond referendum passes) and you are up to $12.5 to $13 million,” Cerkvenik said. “How do you come up with the rest of it? That’s where we go to the IRRR agency and elected officials to see if they will support that.”
Additional school bond funding from the Department of IRRR and increased Taconite Tax Relief are two possible avenues for funding of the Ely school project. “If you look at how much support we are getting now from the taconite tax, we can justify some expenditures to modernize your facilities,” he said.
IRRR staff members Roy Smith and Chris Ismil were at the study session and indicated their approval of the developing project and funding options. “They have been helping to guide us and are here to listen,” Cerkvenik said. “Today, we are just trying to get a feeling from (the school board) on whether or not you want us to continue, to put together further documentation and meet with the IRRR staff on this.”
Costin Group principal Jeff Anderson offered additional advantages of the rebooted facilities project. “The reduction in square footage of the buildings, and added efficiencies, are projected to save the district $40,000 a year, and will ultimately be cost effective in terms of long-term facilities maintenance,” he said. “The project also prepares the school campus for future athletic complex development. This is not something we can look at today, but we can plan for five or ten years out.”
According to Anderson, a project timeline calls for community meetings and IRRR engagement, before the school board makes a final decision in May 2020 on a referendum vote for next August. “With that approval, this project could be bid next September with construction starting as early as April 2021 and completion by 2023,” he said.
School board members were generally in agreement with the new proposal, but voiced concerned about the lack of a second competition-sized gymnasium and no immediate plan providing for a competition running track around the football field.
“I want to see this (facility renovation) come to fruition,” said Rochelle Sjoberg. “We just need to make sure that our community hears us. We have seen the survey results. We know where we are, and we will be respectful of the community’s support. I want to make sure that we are expressing clearly as a board so our community is assured that we are not looking at a $19.8 million project and coming to them. That’s not what we are doing.”