Board looks at Prairie View school expansion

by Kurt Nesbitt
Contributing Writer
Elk River Area School Board members gave general approval to district staff to continue looking at an expansion of Prairie View Elementary and Middle School in Otsego.

Superintendent Dan Bittmann told School Board members that the enrollment trend at Prairie View will continue, since enrollment levels for resident kids are staying at or near their projected levels. Bittman said the district recently learned that many students in the upper or intermediate grades have returned to Elk River from other school districts.

“We’re excited about that,” he told the board at its work session Monday night. “We have the space and are planning space.”

Prairie View was planned to phase in successive grade levels when it was built, he said. But it’s only a matter of time before Prairie View won’t have enough classroom space if the district doesn’t add a second phase, Bittman said. He said he brought the discussion back to the board “to tell community, continue to be transparent and look for ways to prepare for what lies ahead.”

Executive Director of Business Greg Hein said the district has conceptual designs for the second phase that include special education space, a gym addition, 10 classrooms, a staff office and labs. He said the district has four options to pay for it, two which require voter approval — a bond referendum or voter-approved capital project levy.

“I think the decision’s been made that it isn’t going to voters for a vote, which leaves us, really, with these two options. Lease-levy can expand the building up to 20 percent of its existing footprint and use the lease-levy funding option for that. That doesn’t quite pay for the expansion. We can use leftover money from the bond referendum because it’s part of the original scope. Another would be operating capital,” Hein said.

Hein said the district was told by a contractor the second Prairie View phase would cost about $11.8 million. The district has, to that limitation of 20 percent, an estimated cost of $7.7 million. Since the School Board has expressed interest in going lower than the full 20 percent, the target is $1 million less than that or a half a million less than that. The district would make up the balance of the amount needed using unused money from the $98 million approved in the referendum that built the first phase of the school.

Hein estimated the property tax impact is an $18 to $19 increase on a $250,000 home.

School Board Member Gregg Peppin said he was unsure when the School Board decided not to use funding methods that required voter authorization.

School Board Chair Shane Steinbrecher said the district has taken similar approaches in the past, such as when it dealt with Westwood and Zimmerman elementary schools. He said the board decided those buildings had to be built and gave a clear direction to move ahead.

“We have no option because we know that enrollment will increase,” Bittman added.

Hein said the district is in the process of getting next year’s property tax levy numbers together, so the increases for the second phase would probably show up on this fall’s levy certification. Hein said the process for building the second phase will start with designs, proposals, and a decision on a construction bid next August. He said the second phase of Prairie View would be open in the fall of 2019.

Bittman told the board no formal action was required Monday night. He mentioned its past interest in moving forward with the lease-levy and said he wanted to see if the board still feels that way because district staff is working with the Department of Education on the levy.

Bittman said a short time later that board action will be needed along the way. The School Board would certify the tax levy with that dollar amount and then approve the contractor and sub-contractor.

School Board Members Holly Thompson and Joel Nelson were absent from the work session.