School to ponder “corridor concept”

PLAN from 2009 showed how the courtyard at the school could be altered.

by Tom Coombe -

Soon after putting one facilities issue to rest, Ely school officials seem ready to move in a new direction.
They’re in the opening stages of exploring how to address an array of facility-related issues, from connecting school buildings and improving student safety to a look at possible upgrades including new cafeteria and commons space and perhaps even another gymnasium.
Superintendent Kevin Abrahamson termed the proposal, which includes linking the Washington and Memorial buildings with a newly-constructed area, the “corridor concept’ But board members, at Monday night’s regular meeting, did not address or elaborate on the details and agreed to engage in more detailed discussion at a Jan. 22 study session.
Later in the week, Abrahamson offered a partial glimpse of what may be ahead as school board members determine if the district will proceed with a major facilities project that - at first glance - could include a mix of previous proposals with some new wrinkles.
“I have a conceptual drawing that is just that, a concept,” said Abrahamson. “It is designed to spark conversation and thought about what the needs, wants, and conveniences are for the board and the district.”
The development comes in the wake of a December decision - by members of the Ely Regional Community Complex board - to withdraw a proposal to locate a massive recreation complex on school grounds.
That debate, which extended for more than a year, seemed to put plans for a school-specific project in limbo and district officials are now moving forward, cautiously.
For now, details including the size, scope cost of a school facilities project, and how it might be funded, are up for board debate to determine when, or even if, to proceed. While not yet certain, a school project may also require assistance from district taxpayers and a voter-approved bond referendum.
Abrahamson acknowledged all of the uncertainties Tuesday.
He said a consideration “when looking at any type of construction project is how much can we afford, and how much can we successfully ask the voters to support? I don’t have a specific time frame in mind; however, the urgency regarding what is needed as opposed to what is wanted or what would be nice will undoubtedly dictate to some degree, the timeline of this, or any project.”
Abrahamson and the board don’t have to start from scratch when exploring possible enhancements to the campus. Dating back at least to the early-2000s, school officials have looked at an assortment of ideas and concepts for the campus.
One that has generated significant discussion is the concept of constructing a corridor between the elementary (Washington) and high school (Memorial) buildings in the courtyard area. An existing plan, presented in 2009, encompasses the entire courtyard space and included repurposing of existing space.
Ely school officials have long identified a desire to link the two buildings and create enclosed space so students aren’t going outside between the two buildings, but the area between the buildings has been eyed for a bevy of possible uses, including a new cafeteria and kitchen, commons area and a gymnasium that could provide additional practice space and perhaps have some seating as well.
According to Abrahamson, other possible needs that could be addressed include the location of school services that are of need by both elementary and secondary students, such as the school nurse and ADAPT program.
“Much of my motivation right now is about dealing with the safety and efficiency concerns that I have with the courtyard and the amount of travel between the buildings that takes place daily and especially during the cold, winter months,” said Abrahamson. “Connecting the buildings is a very important option in my mind; however, should we simply connect the buildings or are there needs and that could be addressed.”
Board members will take the next steps Jan. 22 during the monthly study session, and the effort could mesh with the roll-out of the district’s strategic plan.
Abrahamson is linking goals identified by a 20-member steering committee with proposed action items that will be addressed that committee later this month.
Also Monday, Abrahamson presented other information including data related to student lunch accounts.
About “three or four” lunch accounts are delinquent by “hundreds of dollars,” the superintendent said, with one account delinquent in excess of $500.
At least one school district in Minnesota came under fire last fall for “shaming” tactics including refusal of lunch service to students who are behind on their accounts. Gov. Mark Dayton was also critical and Abrahamson indicated that Ely does not refuse lunch service to any student delinquent in payment.
The district has in the past used collection services to try and collect payment and Abrahamson said the district could go in that route again.