School project: Time to tap the brakes, think big

by Tom Coombe
Ely school officials were urged to step back and think big about a potential facilities project on campus.
That was the message Monday night from lobbyist Gary Cerkvenik, who is working on behalf of the district to gain as much as $10 million in additional revenue - from the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board -for a major initiative.
“I would encourage you to think bigger and when you’re thinking bigger someone else will help you achieve that bigger plan, with not a lot of extra community support,” said Cerkvenik, a longtime, well-connected political operative who has worked with numerous Range entities and units of government.
“Instead of doing an $8 million (referendum) maybe you have a $10 million and somebody matches it, and now you have a $20 million plan. Now you have a good plan as $20 million accomplishes a lot.”
Cerkvenik met earlier in the month with superintendent Erik Erie, IRRRB staff and project architects and suggested that the board tap the brakes, rather than move toward a facilities referendum in early-2020.
“The key takeaway was step back and take a look at your base plan and see if you can add some appeal to the voters and community to increase academic performance and options,” said Cerkvenik. “Do something a little bit bigger than the small plan and have a plan that will last for a longer time period.”
A community survey completed this month showed about two-thirds of local voters would support at least an $8 million bond and that 55 percent favor an $11 million bond.
Meanwhile, the district has explored a variety of building proposals and concepts - everything from a $5.7 million “base plan” that covers various infrastructure needs such as windows and roofs to a $21.7 million proposal that included numerous items on a wish list compiled by a community committee that met several times in the first half of the year.
Architect Katie Hildebrand, of Hibbing-based Architectural Resources Incorporates, said Tuesday that a new plan “may be a hybrid of one or all” of the previous concepts that have come to the table.
But both Cerkvenik and superintendent Erik Erie suggested that other options be considered.
One, floated during discussion this week, could involve the removal of the Industrial Arts Building to create more space for a new building between the Washington and Memorial facilities.
Cerkvenik said he offered a look at the district’s layout “with fresh eyes.”
“I look at it and wonder why in the world are you preserving that building in the middle that you don’t use?” asked Cerkvenik. “The one that’s got water on the floor?”
Erie said the Industrial Arts Building is used by only two teachers as well as the Happy Days Preschool, and indicated a new option could open up more space for improvement to the district’s outdoor athletic facilities, including a track.
Cerkvenik, expanding on comments he made when he was hired by the board just two weeks earlier, said the district should look to “up your game academically and athletically too, with your facilities.”
“Is there a way you can use some of the other resources you have for school finance to deal with some of the maintenance issues and maybe put a little more emphasis on technology.”
Both Cerkvenik and Erie urged the board to look at a project from a program-based approach, similar to what Virginia and Eveleth-Gilbert are doing for their new joint high school, and then come up with a facilities plan to meet those needs.
Both Erie and board chairman Ray Marsnik said they were encouraged by the results of the community survey, conducted by School Perceptions, a firm with a strong track record in predicting the success of school referendum votes.
With nearly two-thirds of survey respondents showing support for an $8 million bond, and a majority supporting $11 million, Erie said the survey shows Ely area residents “recognize our facilities issues.”
“That is really encouraging, however that doesn’t probably meet all of our needs,” said Erie.
That’s prompted a concerted effort to tap the IRRRB, which has assisted with several other school projects.
IRRRB aid has often been tied to collaboration or innovation, and Cerkvenik said one of his primary goals is to work with district staff and community “to put together an exciting package you’re proud of, go to the agency and get their support and buy in and hopefully come back with a package then that says if voters will vote for ‘X’, we will put in ‘Y.’”
Cerkvenik said Ely “has a story to tell,” and that the district has a good reputation beyond the community for its academic achievement, noting four Alworth scholars among the graduating class of 2019.
Erie said the district would show its commitment, perhaps as soon as next month, by a plan to pledge as much as $500,000 in reserve funds for a facilities project.
“We’re just not asking from the community but taking a portion of our fund balance and dedicating it to this project,” said Erie.
The new superintendent also talked up technology-based initiatives, using four heavy textbooks as a prop and saying that the future of education is loading the contents of a textbook into an electronic device.
Pointing to the pile of books and holding a tablet Erie said “can you imagine carrying that home in a backpack? Rather than carrying a device like this. That is where schools are going. We are probably one of the last schools in the region to have fully implemented, one-to-one technology program.”
Erie also urged board members to tour neighboring schools where major construction projects have taken place, including the new Mt. Iron-Buhl school and the North Woods and South Ridge schools in St. Louis County District 2142.
“The reason I mention Mt. Iron-Buhl and the county schools is they have about the same number of students we have,” said Erie.
Erie said both Mt. Iron-Buhl and Mesabi East, which also had a major construction initiative, have reported enrollment increases since the completion of their respective projects.
Schools face growing competition for students, Erie said, not only from neighboring districts but online options as well.
“We have a lot of good things going on here, behind these walls, and we need to make sure we have supporting spaces for the future,” said Erie.