School lands $495,000 state safety grant

State award will help connect buildings, comes amid push to proceed with major facilities upgrade on campus

by Tom Coombe
The Ely School District is now $495,000 closer to its goal of connecting the district’s three major buildings.
That’s how much the district was awarded this week from the Minnesota Department of Education, which announced the recipients of its School Safety Grants.
Not only did Ely make the cut - the district got one of the largest grant awards in the entire state.
The grant, one of 90 doled out in Minnesota, will help the district offset a sizeable chunk of the roughly $1.33 million cost to connect the Washington, Memorial and Industrial Arts buildings.
“Our challenge at this point is to come up with a plan to cover the other 63 percent, but that’s better than having to secure 100 percent,” superintendent Kevin Abrahamson said Wednesday.
Late this summer, Ely joined districts across the state in seeking a cut of the $25 million available in a grant program set up to help schools improve security and make violence prevention improvements. Abrahamson wrote the successful grant application.
According to news release from the MDE, the agency received nearly 1,200 applications seeking over $255.5 million - more than 10 times the available funding.
Schools could apply for up to $500,000 and Ely was chosen via a formula that took high-priority projects - such as the district’s bid for improved security - into consideration. The program also required that at least half of the grant funds be distributed outside the Twin Cities metropolitan area.
Ely made three separate applications, one for each of its buildings, but few districts received more money and the award dwarfed those received by some other regional schools.
Duluth received $61,000 for a project at Denfeld High School while the neighboring St. Louis County district got about $109,000 for a project at Tower-Soudan.
“We are very grateful and excited that MDE selected one of our three school safety grant applications for funding,” said Abarhamson. “We were fortunate that they selected our largest dollar request and we appear to be one of the largest award recipients in the area, as well as in the state.”
Abrahamson said that “more details should be forthcoming in the near future,” and school board members are likely to address the grant Monday, when they hold their regular monthly meeting.
The grant seems certain to provide a shot in the arm to one component of a major facilities project under consideration.
Abrahamson, board members and school staff have all supported plans to connect the buildings, providing an enclosed area for students and staff who travel between the facilities during the school day.
Some architectural renderings have shown plans for creating one secure entrance to the campus, perhaps at the front of the Industrial Arts Builidng, during the school day.
“The board and other stakeholders will be discussing the possibilities throughout this month,” said Abrahamson.
Board members have also looked at drawings that would add gymnasium space and perhaps create a new cafeteria and commons area.
Total cost for a pair of proposals presented in late-summer range from $7.6 million to $8.9 million and would require voter approval, via a bond referendum, to fund most of the project costs via property tax increases.
To date, the board has not settled on a proposal and members said last month they want more staff input before moving forward.
The board is also expected to choose an architect, after initially putting on hold a recommendation to engage Hibbing-based Architectural Resources, which has provided the draft renderings.
Board members have looked for outside funding sources to help defray some of the hit to area taxpayers, and the grant program from MDE, which was the result of legislation passed this year, was a key initial step.
“Students and teachers clearly need more support to ensure our kids are safe,” said Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius via a news release.. “When we have more than 1,000 schools asking for over $250 million in funding to secure their buildings, we must respond with urgency. The school safety grants announced today only scratch the surface. A more comprehensive approach, including efforts to improve school climate, expand mental health services, and enact common-sense gun safety measures is needed.”
Districts were able to submit separate grant applications for each building. Due to the large number of applications received, high-priority projects submitted on the first day were assigned random numbers to determine the order of funding up to the available $25 million. The MDE, in consultation with the Minnesota Department of Public Safety’s Minnesota School Safety Center, determined grant eligibility based on project priority, with half of the grant funds available to schools outside of the 11-county metropolitan area.
High-priority projects included improvements to exterior entry security, such as access controls, keyless entry systems, door locking and glass integrity, door alarm systems, and structure changes to main entrances. Additions or improvements to communication systems, such as electronic emergency notification systems for staff and first responders, were also considered high-priority projects.