School may turn to engineer, architect to move project ahead

by Tom Coombe -

Ely School Board members say they need more help to move a major proposed facilities project forward.
While no formal decisions could be made at Monday’s study session, members seemed on board with a plan to engage an engineer or architect to take the lead and direct an effort that would likely result in significant changes to the district campus and pursuit of a bond referendum.
Board member Tom Omerza said professional help is imperative to the project.
“I don’t think we’re going to get anywhere fast enough the way we’re going this right now,” said Omerza.
For several months, board members have talked about a project that appears likely to involve the construction of some sort of connecting space between district buildings, expanded gymnasium space, renovations to the cafeteria and former swimming pool space, a commons area and perhaps other components.
The board has looked at preliminary drawings, but discussion has yet to move toward specifics including detailed cost estimates, sources of funding or what will be included in a final proposal.
Superintendent Kevin Abrahamson has talked about pursuit of a possible bond referendum in the fall of 2020, while some on the board have suggested a faster pace.
Omerza pressed for action Monday and charged the current direction is too slow to meet even a 2020 deadline.
“We’re spending a couple of hours on this a month and to me it needs way more time than that,” said Omerza.
Omerza said he believed the project requires several hours per week, stretching the time of Abrahamson, who works part-time.
“I think we need to take about finding someone to move this forward for us,” said Omerza.
The suggestion sparked interest from chairman Ray Marsnik, who added “we’re going to have to get somebody involved more.”
“You’ll get no argument from me,” Abrahamson responded.
The board met two months ago with a representative from Hibbing-based Architectural Resources Incorporated, which has presented “ballpark estimates” of $5.5 million to $6.5 million for the major components of a potential project.
Omerza, however, said he’s like to see the district open the process up to others in the area who may have expertise and interest.
“I would go beyond and let ARI and let other firms present to us,” said Omerza.
Board members said they need an expert opinion before moving ahead.
“I think we need to get an engineer in here,” said Marsnik.
Marsnik pointed to the efforts of Duluth firm Foster, Jacobs, which took the lead in developing the district’s heating system project earlier in the decade.
Omerza added that the district may need help on multiple fronts, including engineers and architects to provide expertise as well as a citizens’ group to spearhead public support for a referendum. He pointed to a successful operating levy referendum in 2006 and the work of a committee led by local physician Joe Bianco.
Since meeting with the board in May, ARI has outlined a ballpark cost of $1 million to build connecting walkways between the Memorial, Washington and Industrial Arts buildings, $2 million to expand the small gymnasium including bleachers on one side, and $2.5 million to remodel the pool area into a cafeteria and kitchen.
Other components include possible remodeling of existing locker room spaces and perhaps improvements or enhancements to outdoor athletic spaces.
Abrahamson indicated that up to $500,000 in school safety grants could be accessed for the connecting link, which appears to be a top priority.
“I think kids walking outside is a security issue,” said Marsnik.
“And safety,” added board member Heidi Mann.
A survey of school staff earlier this year found considerable support for proposals to connect the district’s buildings. Currently, elementary students must go outside to go to the Memorial Building for lunch and for music and physical education classes.
Staff members and others have also pressed for the district to expand its gymnasium space, noting cramped quarters for junior high athletic events and the need for more space when elementary students must go inside for recess during inclement weather.