School lands $7 million

IRRRB grant contingent on approval of $10 million referendum

by Tom Coombe
If area voters do their part, a state agency will provide $7 million for a major project on the Ely school campus.
That became certain Wednesday, when the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board voted 7-0 to approve a $7 million grant, contingent on voter approval of a $10 million bond referendum now set for August.
Those are the key pieces of a nearly $20 million project that combines renovation 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 space. The Industrial Arts Building would be demolished to make room for the new structure.
The IRRRB vote, which came at a meeting conducted via conference call because of the coronavirus pandemic, capped months of effort by school officials to secure additional funding for the long-discussed project.
IRRRB commissioner Mark Phillips recommended the allocation, which came from a request crafted by school officials and hired lobbyists in consultation with agency staff and project architects.
Northeastern Minnesota legislators, who make up the IRRRB, approved the request with little discussion - although State Sen. Tom Bakk (D-Cook) offered words of caution.
“This isn’t the best environment to ask voters to raise taxes,” said Bakk.
With the coronavirus shuttering some businesses, closing schools and raising economic angst, the backdrop for a school referendum election is suddenly different than what it was when Ely officials initiated the request.
The resolution approved by the IRRRB, however, requires Ely voters to approve a referendum by the end of the year to access the IRRRB funding.
“Ely has to pass a referendum by Dec. 31, or the resolution is null and void,” said Phillips.
Bakk said he wanted to make sure there was flexibility for Ely to come up with a different plan in the future - perhaps in conjunction with neighboring schools in Ely and Babbitt - should the referendum fail.
Erie and other school officials have touted a pubic survey completed late last year showing that district voters would support a referendum of up to $11 million.

Tax scenarios weren’t immediately available this week but Erie indicated that an earlier projection showed that a $10 million bond would prompt a tax increase of about $5 per month, or $60 per year, on a $100,000 residential property in the district.
The hit on commercial properties would be higher, while seasonal-recreational properties would also be impacted by a successful bond referendum.
Ely gained favor from the IRRRB with the help of lobbyists Gary Cerkvenik and Jeff Anderson, who helped draft a funding plan earlier in the year.
Erie also met with Phillips and state legislators while principals Megan Anderson and Anne Oelke met individually with IRRRB members on a lobbying trip to St. Paul in late-February.
Initial plans called for the district to send a delegation of up to 25 people, including students, to this week’s meeting, which was originally set for St. Paul. Those plans were scrapped after the state capitol was closed to the public and legislators adjourned.
While the IRRRB has helped fund a series of school renovation projects in northeastern Minnesota, most have been linked to consolidation or collaboration efforts.
IRRRB officials also pressed the Ely district to work toward collaboration, and the result has been talks with other entities - including neighboring St. Louis County District 2142 and its Northeast Range High School in Babbitt.
The districts already collaborate in some areas, including a shared teaching position and some cooperative agreements for sports.
In a narrative outlining a project now pegged at $19.6 million, school officials made the case that the project “will create one building on campus, eliminating the safety issues and loss of teaching time walking students outside to other classrooms, gym, and breakfast/lunch.”
The district also outlined several key points including:
• Renovating the 100-year-old Industrial Arts Building would cost more than demolishing it and building a new connecting structure;
• The overall campus footprint will be reduced 7,600 square feet as a result of the project, resulting in long-term operational and maintenance cost savings;
• The preschool program now housed in the Industrial Arts Building would be relocated to either the Memorial or Washington buildings;
• The investment in a new heating system made by the district would be retained by engineering it into the new connecting structure;
• Technology upgrades will allow staff to use hand held devices rather than just textbooks;
• Safety and security will be improved with a new, comprehensive entrance and exit plan;
• The proposal includes an area for Maker Space programming, new industrial arts classrooms, a new modern media center and relocation and expansion of the fine arts programs;
• The proposal provides for a new cafeteria as well as additional gymnasium space.
In addition to the bond referendum and IRRRB allocation, the project budget calls for $1.6 million from the school district’s long-term maintenance fund, $500,000 in district reserves and $495,000 from a school safety grant previously awarded to the district.
The project budget calls for $7.7 million for the new addition, just over $5 million for renovations to the existing Washington and Memorial buildings, and $7 million in infrastructure work ranging from demolition and site work to HVAC upgrades, as well as lead contaminant domestic water piping replacement.
School officials say there’s an economic development component to the project as well, noting that a 20-month construction period would create numerous construction jobs, equaling 28 full-time jobs and requiring 95,000 hours of labor.