Editorial: A “yes” vote for Ely’s kids, future

Amid the strangest of circumstances, Ely area voters will head to the polls Tuesday and determine the fate of a $10 million school bond referendum.
This, obviously, wasn’t the backdrop envisioned by Ely school officials early in the year as they put together a package to take to district residents for long-awaited, and long-needed, improvements to the campus.
But the coronavirus pandemic and its impact are clearly beyond the control of the school district and we’d best be served to consider the referendum - and the nearly $20 million project itself - beyond the absurdities of today.
Much has been written in this newspaper, in news stories and editorials dating back years, as well as more recently in flyers and documents put together both by the district and a “vote yes” advocacy committee, about the district’s facility needs.
The two primary existing buildings - the Memorial and Washington - are both around a century old and require the infrastructure upgrades as proposed. Things like roofs and windows can’t simply be put off or patchworked together.
The inefficiencies linked to students going back and forth outside between the buildings, often many times per day, are obvious.
Anyone who has attended a junior high volleyball or basketball game in the “small gym” can recognize the safety hazard that exists for players and spectators, and the existing gymnasium space doesn’t come close to meeting the district’s curriculum or activity needs.
For safety and security reasons, the district would be better served by a primary entrance and a look at several neighboring schools and their recent upgrades show Ely well behind when it comes to modern space related to cafeteria, commons areas and some classrooms.
Architects took all of that into consideration and came up with a plan that truly represents the district’s 21st Century needs.
If the project moves forward as planned, the old buildings will get a face lift and the district will have a brand-new connecting link that has many of the bells and whistles one would see elsewhere.
With a gym, cafeteria, commons space, offices, media center and new classroom areas, the middle structure would truly link new and old, the past and the present, and create a package that helps our kids and serves as an attraction to families considering a move to Ely and Independent School District 696.
The plan has also been adjusted on the way, and school officials deserve credit for hearing a concern, acknowledging it and doing something about it.
Case in point are revisions that make sure Ely will maintain its strong industrial arts or “shop” curriculum, even with the demolition of the Industrial Arts Building. Teacher Rob Simonich visited numerous schools, measured spaces, talked with other instructors and returned with advice that shape a revised “shop” area that’s larger than in place at most of the remodeled or new schools in the region. Industrial education is so important in today’s world and this plan recognizes that reality.
A project this important and extensive doesn’t come cheap and the overall cost clearly demands attention.
Yet it’s important to note that approval of the $10 million bond triggers an additional $7 million grant from the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board.
Combined with other sources, including a nearly $500,000 school safety grant, district reserves and existing long-term maintenance funds, give the taxpayer much more bang for the buck, almost a double your money deal that may not be there again if voters defeat Tuesday’s referendum.
The property tax impact is real, yet reasonable when looking at the entire picture - including the project itself and the IRRRB carrot.
Those are among the many good reasons to vote “yes” on Tuesday and we believe COVID-19 provides yet an-other.
The debate over school closures and reopening amid the pandemic has gripped the nation, the state and certainly Ely as well.
One look at the extensive and complex list of regulations and restrictions associated with opening school this fall raises probing and troubling questions. State-mandated masks and shields, temperature checks and regimented recess and lunch, bans on congregating, and buildings closed to visitors all raise valid concerns of whether it’s even worth it to send children to school in such a draconian setting.
In fact, if the vision for school in September is the long-term vision for education in Ely and elsewhere, one might wonder if the investment asked of district residents is even worth it at all.
But we choose not to believe that. We can’t believe that. We can’t believe that schools will change to that extent for any significant length of time nor that our community or state will accept it. The new normal? A three-word term that should be forever banished.
Instead we believe that hope will soon win out over fear. Hard data will prevail over hysteria. Common sense will return.
We envision a grand opening next September at a brand-new Ely school building and renovated Washington and Memorial facilities. Not with masks and a checklist of restrictions and rules, but with hundreds of smiling people filing in, looking at their investment in Ely’s kids and Ely’s future.
That’s what this Tuesday is about, and that’s why we strongly support a yes vote for Ely’s school bond referendum.