Parker plan called into question

by Jim Boyle

Editor

Two days after hearing the news of a decline  in births in the Elk River Area School District, Elk River Area School Board members have been asked to consider holding off or scaling back on its plans to spend of $7 million to remodel Parker Elementary School.

The newfound hesitance stems from a fear that given the new information the district could be  faced with a decision five-six years from now of closing or re-purposing the school.

Superintendent Mark Bezek said the numbers of preschool-aged children gives him pause. The Elk River Area School District is projecting a 700 student drop in its K–five population from its peak in 2010–11 school year to 2019.

If the Elk River area began to grow again things could change in a hurry, it was noted. Some school board members expressed optimism that another growth spurt will kick in well before 2019.

“But this is our current reality,” Bezek said.

If the numbers decline as they are projected, the school district might have to look again at closing a school. That could save the district $500,000 annually.

Another possibility is it could be re-purposed. The possibilities are wide and varied, ranging from turing the facility into a different type of school facility, like a kindergarten center, immersion school or welcome center/district office.

If that’s the case, does the district want to remodel the school now and be looking at such options in a half dozen years?

“As the director of business services, I have to provide due diligence for the district,” said Randy Anderson.

School Board Chairwoman Jolene Jorgensen said she doesn’t see the school closing or being used for anything but classrooms. She favored continuing with its plans.

School board member Shane Steinbrecher questioned breaking the project in phases — starting with the critical. That would likely include a complete upgrade of mechanical and air handling systems that were installed when the school was built about 40 years ago. Plumbing (pipes that back up with sewage) and casework are other concerns.

The remodeling plans call for making the school more secure by moving the front office and moving away from the open classroom setting, as other schools with District 728 have done over the years.

The Parker project was started this past spring when flooring was pulled up, but the project stalled when the bidding climate imploded.

After some of the most competitive and generous bidding with the Zimmerman project, the Parker Elementary School renovation project came in over the estimated cost twice — even after  school district administrators working alongside Wold Architects took steps to tweak the initial project and break it into phases after the first set of bids came in high by nearly  $1 million.

District officials were surprised and went out for another round of bids with the same result.

“The bidding climate right now is really weird,” Anderson told the board back in April.

The lowest bid on what was initially viewed as a $5.35 million construction project came in at $6.45 million.

Contractors said the short time needed to complete the project would force them to rely on added work shifts to deal with phasing challenges.

District administrators and architects adjusted the scope of the project — eliminating such things as a bathroom near the physical education offices and the mechanics for new backboards in the gym, as well changes in the HVAC system.

“We took away things we were hoping we could afford with the bid climate,” Anderson said.

School officials were hoping bids would come in at or below budget for the newly drawn up construction project, estimated to cost $6 million, on April 3. That didn’t happen.

The decision was made to hold off until next summer. To proceed as planned, the district needs to pull the trigger soon.

The district is relying heavily on alternative facility dollars to do the project. If the district doesn’t proceed, that money could be applied to other deferred maintenance like parking lots, tennis courts and gymnasiums.

School and administrators talked about doing a scaled-back version of the plan, but that also raised some questions.

The recent demographic study that brought the cloud over the Parker plan was created by SchoolFinances.com.

Jim Sheehan and Ann Thomas of the firm presented their findings last Monday.

The number of births in the district dropped from 990 in 2005 to 826 in 2011. Those numbers, without any promise of growth, put a dent in the district’s enrollment projections.

Sheehan advised the district to look at its numbers every year and become increasingly mindful of parental choices and develop measures to retain and attract families.

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