School project displaces classes

School must vacate Industrial Arts Building by April 1 to meet timelines; “shop” classes and Happy Days must go elsewhere

by Tom Coombe
The next steps in Ely’s nearly $20 million school improvement project have come with a shocking development for school officials, staff and students: the Industrial Arts Building must be vacant by April 1.
Earlier talk of a mid-May timeline was upended by a bombshell, which superintendent Erik Erie described as a “shocker to all of us,” that became public at Monday’s school board meeting.
The shocker has created a mad scramble of sorts as school officials look to move industrial arts and music classes to a new location on campus, with Happy Days Preschool in search of a new home as well.
School board chairman Ray Marsnik voiced concerns about the impact on the district’s industrial arts classes while a former board member - James Pointer - went before his former colleagues Monday and argued without success that the district take a different approach.
As recently as last month, school officials had talked of vacating the Industrial Arts Building in May to allow for demolition of the structure, a key early step in a major renovation on campus.
But staff from general contractor Krause-Anderson were on site the week of March 1 and gave word that the building must be vacant much sooner in order to meet a 16-month construction timeline and allow for the entire project to be completed as scheduled by the fall of 2022.
“This is much different than building a new building on a vacant lot somewhere,” said Erie.
Asbestos and hazardous material abatement must begin at the building, Erie told board members, as contractor Kraus-Anderson moves forward with plans to demolish that structure as well as the boiler building, in addition to the swimming pool and boys locker room areas in the Memorial.
Those steps are among the first in a project that will include a brand-new structure that will link the Memorial and Washington buildings, as well as significant upgrades to both of the existing structures.
By this fall, renovations to the Washington classrooms are expected to be completed, and the timeline calls for the Industrial Arts to be vacant within about three weeks.
The school district will move equipment and other salvageable materials out, and school officials have quickly made plans to relocate classes - most notably the industrial arts courses that are currently taking place.
“When we come back from Easter, the kids will be coming back and the shop classes will be held in the choir room with (industrial arts instructor) Mr. (Rob) Simonich setting up electronics labs,” said high school principal Megan Anderson. “We’ll be looking at some hands-on, how does electricity work sort of things.”
The early departure from the Industrial Arts Building will force students to finish their current projects now.
“They’re going to work the rest of the month to finish up their Adirondack chairs,” said Anderson. “There’s something like 120 chairs in the building and those will be finished, stained and on the way out so we can then transition into fourth quarter into electronics.”
The transition may also extend beyond the 2020-21 school year and in to next fall, with continued uncertainty about the extent of the district’s industrial arts curriculum.
Anderson said that music classes will move to a new classroom for the remainder of the year and that the swimming pool area, set to be renovated, may be a temporary option for band during for the 2021-22 school year.
As for industrial arts, Anderson said it’s “too early to know” what may happen.
“We’re exploring options and all different avenues,” she said.
Marsnik suggested reaching out to neighboring Independent School District 2142 to discuss a potential collaboration, and said he worried the district might lose students if it did not address how it would offer industrial arts courses.
Pointer voiced similar concerns, urged the board to reject the contractor’s timeline and also lamented the impact on Happy Days Preschool, which has served as a “feeder” program of sorts for the district’s kindergarten classes.
“Find a way to work around this,” said Pointer. “Let the kids stay in their classrooms.”
School officials have tentatively announced plans for an April groundbreaking for the project, which was triggered by voter approval last August of a $10 million bond and a subsequent $7 million grant from the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board.
At the heart of the initiative is a new structure will do much more than connect the existing schools. It will also serve as the new entrance to the campus and house a new gymnasium, cafeteria, media center, common spaces, offices and classrooms.
Just two weeks ago, the school board and public got a look at updated drawings that showed the vision for the new building, including a gymnasium with glass windows, a commons area with room for nearly 200 people, classrooms for music and industrial arts.
Bidding for the initial phase is set to be complete within the next several weeks, and school officials have indicated that construction would begin before the end of the school year.
In addition to the demolition of the Industrial Arts Building, the project will also include the construction of a storage garage for school vehicles near the ice arena.
In December, school board members agreed and allowed for schematic, design development and preparation of a construction document produced more detailed cost estimates and a plan for the project.
While the new structure has captured much of the attention related to the project, renovations to the Washington and Memorial facilities are also in store.
Plans call for moving Happy Days Preschool to the Washington building as well as the early childhood and Headstart programs.
The Memorial will have a new look, with renovations to classrooms and the conversion of various spaces.
The school district also got welcome financial news in the fall, when interest rates for the school’s debt came in at 1.3998 percent, far below initial projections of 3.24
The interest savings helped the district in another way, as board members issued $1.1 million in additional bonds this month to pay for indoor air quality improvements.
Despite the additional borrowing, the tax impact remains below projections provided by the district in advance of the referendum.