District 88 panel opts for new high school

NEW ULM – The District 88 Facilities Task Force will recommend a plan that calls for building a new high school in New Ulm, its members decided at their fourth and final meeting Tuesday.

The panel will make this recommendation in a report to the School Board on March 27, and the report will also explain the rationale behind the thinking.

The Facilities Task Force has been meeting monthly since last December, to determine strategic facility needs in District 88 and develop ideas on how best to address them.

Having narrowed the options down to two, the panel on Tuesday heard more detail on both, before zeroing in on its preferred course of action.

Two options, recapped:

Plan One (recommended):

This option, with a total price tag of approximately $45.3 million, calls for remodeling Washington Elementary School (on the north end of town, now accommodates grades 4-6) into a building for early childhood, pre-school and kindergarten classes.

Under this plan, Jefferson Elementary School (which now houses grades K-3) would be remodeled into a school for grades 1-4, while the present High School would become a middle school for grades 5-8. The current high school would also house district offices. The annex and portable classrooms at the main campus would be removed.

The plan is centered around building a new high school on an unspecified, to-be-acquired, site. The new high school would come with an athletic and performing arts complex, included in the overall price. The building itself would be 140,000 square feet and would cost $25.9 million. The athletic complex would cost $5 million. The overall price tag includes both construction and soft costs.

State regulations call for 60 acres of land to build a school.

Most likely, a new high school site would be west of New Ulm, said Superintendent Jeff Bertrang. He explained that several potential sites have been identified, in preliminary conversations with real estate agents. These sites are located along U.S. Highway 14 in the direction of Sleepy Eye, near the New Ulm Municipal Airport, along Brown County Roads 27 and 29, and along U.S. Highway 15.

However, specific tiers of land near the airport come with zoning constraints attached. In turn, sites along Highway 15, both south and north of New Ulm, may be impractical to build on – because construction there would involve lift stations to bring utilities across a river, or building expensive septic systems/wells.

Plan Two

(also considered):

This plan, with an overall price tag of $36.7 million, calls for adding to and remodeling existing buildings. Washington School would turn into a school for grades preK-3; Jefferson would accommodate grades 4-7; and the current High School grades 8-12.

This plan would include a major addition on the main campus, connecting Jefferson and the high school. The addition would accommodate administrative offices, a gym, an auditorium, a kitchen, a cafeteria, lockers and storage space. It would also function as multi-purpose, community-oriented space.

The price tag includes $3 million for upgrading the current athletic complex (including artificial turf on the football field). The price includes soft costs.

Over the course of Task Force meetings, this plan started out as a favorite, then gradually lost ground to Plan One, as the thinking appeared to gradually evolve.

Operational costs

To facilitate informed deliberation, Superintendent Jeff Bertrang also discussed the operational costs – for custodial staff, utilities, supplies, maintenance, staff sharing, new staff, insurance, transportation and the like – that each scenario would entail.

These costs would amount to about $700,000-$750,000 a year for Plan One and approximately $330,000 for Plan Two, he said.

On the flip side, removing the annex and portable classrooms, and the pending sale of the former middle school (on State Street, currently site of district offices and the only auditorium in the district), would bring about operational cost reductions for the district, of about $125,000 to $135,000 a year.

In addition, if the district were to retain ownership of the former middle school, it would need to invest some $4.5 million in it, in long-term (15 years) deferred maintenance (according to costs calculated in 2007), added Bertrang.

Tax impact

Bertrang also shared tax impact information associated with the plans, which would be funded with a potential voter-approved bond.

In a typical example, a 25-year, $35 million, bond would increase taxes on a $150,000 home by $74 per year. The impact of a $40 million bond on the same home would be $93 a year; and that of a $45,000 million bond would be $111 a year.

Argument for new

high school

Making the case for a new high school, Task Force members said that it would be a major draw for new and existing industry and employees. The idea is to create a regional center of educational excellence, with the facility built around the concept of academic innovation, that would attract students and families, ensuring the viability of the community.

The new complex would generate opportunities that currently do not exist, bringing visitors to town and strengthening the hospitality and retail industry.

With the price difference between plans at just under $10 million, a new building would be a better buy for the money, said others. Resuscitating aging buildings represents a band-aid approach that may require further action, and new spending, just a few years down the road.

Adding to the current campus would diminish green space and increase congestion and pressure on the neighborhood, while a new building would come with room for growth, others added.

But while overwhelmingly coming on the side of a new high school, Task Force members also acknowledged drawbacks, predicting arguments against it. Some referenced operational, busing and staffing costs. Others predicted voter reluctance to vote for “something unknown,” citing the fact that the district does not have a site firmly identified, and cannot buy land until a potential bond passes.

Timelines

Task Force members will present their report to the School Board on March 27. If the School Board concurs with the recommendation, the plan would be sent to the Minnesota Department of Education for approval in early May.

The board would call a bond referendum, which would take place during the primary election on Aug. 12.

If the bond is approved, the projects would be up for bids next winter, after further defining conceptual designs. Construction would start in the spring of 2015, with the new high school planned for occupancy in the fall of 2016.

Remodeling of the older facilities would take place over two, or, if needed, three, summers (2015-2017).

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