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School building plans may shrink by about half

Posted 11/17/15 (Tue)

By Jody Michael
The Divide County School District’s next building expansion and renovation proposal to voters will likely be around half the cost of the previous $20 million plan, board members said in their regular monthly meeting Nov. 10.
A few board members had joined superintendent Sherlock Hirning for two small “community committee meetings” in the past month with a group of staff and some members of the public to deliberate what the district’s next steps should be in advancing its building plans.
“We were trying to figure out a direction as far as what we want to start with,” Hirning said. “It started by looking at the original master plan that was used, and then we tried to answer questions about why we thought we needed certain things.”
Hirning said he has asked the architectural consultant, EAPC, to break down the cost estimates for each part of the master building plan to get a better idea of how much to pursue.
Preliminary estimates, Hirning said, found that subtracting the electrical upgrades and the middle school addition -- thus leaving the HVAC upgrades, the elementary school addition and some smaller-scale renovations in the high school -- would diminish the cost to roughly $8 million.
“There was a level of comfort thinking $8 million is a good figure to start with,” Hirning said. “But then, how much more do we need to do?”
Hirning and board members expressed a preference to retain the electrical improvements in the plan, which would put the total cost somewhere around $10 million.
“Electrically, the buildings are not wired for the technology we’re using,” Hirning said.
“We should definitely at both schools upgrade the electrical,” Board President Pete Fagerbakke said in agreement.
What to prioritize?
With more than 80 percent of voters having rejected the full $20 million building plan last  April, Hirning asked for further direction from the board.
“My thought is we probably have to end up at half of that,” Board Member Steve Feil said. “If you can cut that number in half, you’re probably going to get a more receptive response.”
Still, a few board members reiterated their insistence that the district needs more than $10 million worth of improvements, while acknowledging that voters won’t necessarily agree.
“More people need to be educated on what our priority list is,” Board Member Holly Krecklau said. “I don’t think people realize how past urgent our heating is, the surveillance system, the electrical system. Things need to start getting taken care of before something bad happens.”
Hirning said he told patrons at the community meeting the number of additional classrooms for each building is negotiable. His aforementioned $10 million example would retain the four new elementary classrooms from the original plan, but omit the dozen or so middle-school classrooms it would have attached to the high school building.
“There were still people open-minded to additional space in the high school if we can show the need for it -- we’re talking maybe two, three, four classrooms max,” Hirning said. “The additional classroom space in the elementary is open to discussion.”
The district is going ahead with its plan to install a new heating system this summer regardless of the next bond measure’s outcome, and Hirning suggested doing the same with an elevator for the elementary building.
“I feel that is also a necessary thing we have to move forward with,” he said. “The elementary needs some basic things that just have to get done. The elevator needs to be in; the heating needs to be replaced.”
The district cannot place a bond measure on the ballot until deciding on a dollar amount.
An easier sell?
Aside from the reduced cost, a few other factors could make the plan more palatable to voters as well, Hirning said.
One is the likelihood that EAPC’s cost estimates are actually too high, a possibility Hirning said he has gleaned from his communication with the firm.
“The bids are coming in under the estimates in the projects they’re doing now,” he said.
Also, in contrast with the $20 million proposal, a $10 million bond measure wouldn’t require a second ballot question for raising the district’s debt limit, which Hirning said is “somewhere around $15 million.”
New valuation figures would work in taxpayers’ favor as well, Hirning added.
“The utilities have gone up considerably this year -- we’ve increased about $5 million in valuation mostly from there,” he said. “That, in effect, shifts some of the burden away from farmland and ag producers, and back to the utilities. That helps the situation a little bit also.”
Board members said they are longing for more success with the voters this time around.
“This is for the kids,” Board Member Catherine Lystad said. “They deserve a place to go that’s warm and safe and usable.”
“You’re doing it for the community, too,” Fagerbakke said. “A lot of families check out the school before they move here.”
“We’ve become complacent or used to what we have right now,” Hirning said, “because we were perceived as the community with the nicest gym and facilities around. But we haven’t done anything to them since 1973.”