School seeks IRRRB funds

Resolution formalizes request for $7.2 million as key piece to nearly $20 million project; St. Paul presentation looms in March

by Tom Coombe
A resolution approved by Ely School Board members Monday clears the way for the district to seek about $7.2 million in outside assistance for a proposed school improvement project.
That assistance would come from the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board, if state lawmakers who govern the agency give their approval, perhaps as soon as next month.
After discussing it two weeks earlier, school board members gave their unanimous approval to a resolution that seeks just over $7 million from the IRRRB, which has assisted several other area schools with similar projects.
Ely officials are eyeing nearly $20 million in improvements and are moving toward a potential $10 million bond referendum later in the year, but they’ve made it clear they will also seek help from the IRRRB.
IRRRB funding, if allocated, would be accessed only if voters approve the referendum.
School board members took the next step toward pursuing IRRRB monies by approving a resolution that directs superintendent Erik Erie and his support team to bring forward a complete plan for a proposed $19.8 million project, for final approval in May and a bond referendum in August.
Meanwhile, Erie indicated that school officials would likely make their case to the IRRRB at a Mar. 18 meeting in St. Paul, while the legislature is in session.
He envisioned supporters traveling en masse, with students, parents, teachers, administration, school board members and other community leaders comprising an Ely delegation.
“We have to be able to tell legislators why they should be supporting Ely in this project,” said Erie.
Architects have come up with a plan that calls for

both renovations and new construction, including a structure that would link the Washington and Memorial buildings and include new classrooms, cafeteria and commons space, a secure entry and additional gymnasium.
It also includes technology and security upgrades, infrastructure renovations that remove lead from the school’s drinking water, repair and replacement of windows, doors and roofs, a new media center and music area, classroom upgrades to the existing buildings and the demolition of the Industrial Arts Building.
The current plan evolved from discussions that have taken place over the last two years, although various components of the project have been on the table for a decade or more.
Pointing to a community survey showing that public support for a bond referendum tops out in the $8 million to $11 million range, Ely leaders have pressed for the district to seek additional funding from the IRRRB.
Erie, project architects and lobbyists Gary Cerkvenik and Jeff Anderson have met with IRRRB staff, and the resolution approved evolved in part from those discussions.
IRRRB staff members have maintained that Ely must engage neighboring districts to access agency funds.
That was the theme again at a Jan. 31 meeting at IRRRB headquarters, according to Erie. “They reemphasized collaboration and cooperation,” said Erie. “They asked about some of the things that we are doing.”
Ely currently shares a teacher and some sports programs with Northeast Range, which is part of St. Louis County District 2142.
Ely and 2142 administrators have held meetings to discuss more possibilities for collaboration, but nothing further has emerged publicly as of yet.
While there was talk last month of more course offerings, it could also lead to a common schedule and bell times.
The possibility raised warnings of caution from school board members, and the resolution moving forward to the IRRRB has little detail, indicating that Ely will seek “a comprehensive plan to increase cooperation and collaboration with area schools and current programs such as the Applied Learning Institute, Education Innovation Partners and others.”
“I appreciate changing (the resolution) so it’s a little more vague,” said school board member James Pointer.
Erie said that to gain IRRRB money, the district will need to “show we’re continuing to work on it.”
“We have to be able to show what we are doing and making progress,” said Erie.
It’s a fast track, with IRRRB approval leading to school officials formalizing the project and taking a plan to voters in time for an August election.
Anderson, an Ely graduate, met with faculty members earlier in the month and “got good feedback,” according to Erie.
Ely teachers also showed a willingness to support a referendum and could draw on the resources of Education Minnesota, the state teachers’ union.
With a board vote looming in less than three months, chairman Ray Marsik said he wanted to see more details about how the project would impact the district’s annual operating costs.
He questioned whether the new link would require additional custodial support, as well as its impact on the district’s utility costs.
In January, the board committed $500,000 in district reserves to the project and members have largely been supportive of the project.
The funding package, as currently proposed, would also include $1.6 million from the district’s long-term facility maintenance fund and $495,000 from a school safety grant awarded earlier by the Minnesota Department of Education.