School project takes shape

Board soon to act on resolution to seek $7 million from IRRRB

by Tom Coombe
The framework of a nearly $20 million school improvement project - and how it might be funded - came more into focus this week.
School board members in Ely reviewed but took no action Monday on proposals forwarded by an architect as well as the district’s lobbyists, but the project seems on a path toward a potential $10 million bond referendum yet this year.
Architect Scott Sosalla of Hibbing-based Architectural Resources Incorporated provided the latest draft of a proposal that calls for both renovations and new construction, with revisions that include a larger gymnasium than was shown in an earlier draft.
Lobbyists Gary Cerkvenik and Jeff Anderson, meanwhile, laid out a scenario in which the district would ask local taxpayers to come up with $10 million via a referendum while dipping into reserves, a state grant and long-term facilities funding to come up with another $2 million-plus.
That leaves a gap of more than $7 million, which Cerkvenik, Anderson and school officials hope will be filled by the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board.
“Our chore is to figure out how to cover that gap,” said Cerkvenik.
Cerkvenik presented the board with a resolution that would indicate district support for the scenario, and action could come as soon as next month.
Meanwhile, the lobbyists are continuing to work on Ely’s behalf with IRRRB members, staff, and commissioner Mark Phillips to curry support.
While initial talks have been fruitful, according to Cerkvenik, IRRRB funding could come with some strings.
That might include further collaboration with other districts, likely neighboring St. Louis County District 2142’s Northeast Range school in Babbitt, and that’s spurred more discussion between the districts.
While that might include more course offerings, it could also lead to a common schedule and bell times.
Board members voiced reservations and caution, but Cerkvenik said more cooperation may be pivotal in securing the $7 million the district is seeking from the agency.
“You have to make an attempt at it,” said Cerkvenik. “There has to be some meat and potatoes in there. The less you do, the worse position we will be in.”
Cerkvenik warned that the IRRRB school funding program “is designed to support collaboration and cooperation,” with the agency largely supporting collaboration or consolidation efforts, including the soon-to-be-built Virginia/Eveleth high school and the 2142 consolidation that closed schools at Cotton, Orr and Cook.
Mt. Iron-Buhl gained support from IRRRB in building e gymnasium and an artificial turf football field, but Cerkvenik noted that district has collaborated with 2142 in several areas, including shared superintendents and other staff.
Ely has taken steps to collaborate and trim costs as well, operating with a part-time superintendent for several years, sharing a business manager, splitting a German teacher with 2142 and combining with Northeast Range for several sports.
The lobbyists say Ely also has more obstacles in collaboration, given its location.
“We’re kind of over that argument,” said Cerkvenik.
Cerkvenik also said the district has scaled back its plan.
“This easily could be a $25 or $26 million project,” he said.
Current timelines call for the lobbyists to continue to engage the IRRRB, in hopes of securing a commitment in advance of a referendum.
The district will seek an IRRRB vote this spring in which the agency would commit funding that hinges on the approval of a local referendum.
“We don’t want to go to the voters saying we hope to get funding,” said Cerkvenik.
Board members insisted last month that they wanted to sign off on any proposal that goes before the IRRRB - and that decision will likely come Feb. 10.
In January, the board committed $500,000 in district reserves to the project and members have largely been supportive of the project.
Board member James Pointer questioned the specifics of the district’s commitment, particularly some of the details in a narrative drafted by Cerkvenik.
Pointer reiterated Monday that he supported the draft resolution but had concerns with the broader narrative.
“That (the narrative) is talking about changing our school day,” said Pointer. “That got pretty specific. That concerned me.”
Any decisions related to collaboration and changing the school day would ultimately require board approval, and Cerkvenik told the board “we need to know what you want to do.”
Superintendent Erik Erie attempted to soothe some of the concerns, noting “if we do (change), we’re not committed to that for 10 years.”
“Every time we meet with IRRRB staff, they say ‘you need to show us some collaboration,’” said Erie.
Cerkvenik said the resolution offers a road map of sorts for the district as it moves forward, perhaps toward an August referendum.
“Ely has some special circumstances at the end of the road,” said Anderson. “There’s a need for improvement and it seems like the time is right.”
Earlier, Sosalla provided revised drawings as well as photographs of schools that have completed similar projects, including Warroad, Mt. Iron-Buhl and Moose Lake.
It calls for the construction of a structure that connects the Washington and Memorial buildings and creates new classroom, commons, cafeteria and gymnasium space as well as new secure entry.
It also would result in the demolition of part of the Industrial Arts Building.
The project includes about $9 million in new construction, with the bulk of the remainder tied to improvements of the existing Washington and Memorial buildings. Classrooms would be renovated, new roofs and other infrastructure work would be done, while the pool area would be converted to a weight room with adjacent locker rooms remodeled. The music and early childhood education areas would also be moved.
The revised drawings call for a larger gymnasium than first drafted, including bleacher seating for about 150 people.
At least for now, the plans don’t call for the construction of a new track - a cause of concern for some board members.
The cost of a new track varies on what is done, according to Sosalla. While it would take about $500,000 to refurbish the existing track, proposals for a larger eight-lane track and putting artificial turf on the football field would be pricier additions.
The current plan meshes with results of a community survey, which showed that a majority of respondents would support a bond referendum ranging from $8 million to $11 million.