Bringing Park Rapids school facilities up to snuff will come at a cost – but, according to a project development consultant, a cost that local taxpayers might deem reasonable.

The Park Rapids School Board had a special meeting Wednesday, Feb. 26 to discuss the school district’s facility plan. Afterward, Jason Splett with ICS Consulting, Inc. and Superintendent Lance Bagstad told the Enterprise about the presentation the school board received.

“It’s preliminary,” said Bagstad. “We’re just scratching the surface here, but we’re gaining traction.”

In an opening summary of his report, Splett said, “We went through some leadership team results. We developed and talked about three different options, along with budgets. We had Ehlers provide a financial update with some of the tax impact information. And then we walked through an updated timeline.”

Setting priorities

Splett said ICS met with the schools’ leadership teams on Jan. 20 and 27 to prioritize the goals for facility renovation and/or construction to meet the district’s needs, as identified last year in a series of listening sessions and an educational adequacy assessment.

Based on the listening sessions, Splett said the most desired improvements were updating the high school and Frank White buildings, improving traffic flow at the Century drop-off/pickup area, adding a community-use athletic facility, securing school entrances and adding classroom and special program space.

Additional suggestions included technical education upgrades, a new bus garage, rebuilt tennis courts and an improved auditorium.

Meanwhile, aeas falling short of state educational adequacy guidelines included secured entry at all school buildings; high school and Frank White building classroom size, science and music facilities, and teacher work areas; Frank White offices and outdoor playgrounds; Century School common areas and drop-off/pickup zones; high school and middle school gyms; and high school restrooms. Several other areas were judged to be partially in compliance with state guidelines.

ICS consultants asked the leadership teams to prioritize the pros and cons of several options for improving school facilities. School staff favored building a new high school or making Century serve Early Childhood through sixth grade and the high school grades 7-12. For this option, the top need they identified is adding a grade 7-8 wing onto the high school.

To help the Century Early Childhood-8/high school 9-12 option succeed, teachers stressed the importance of adding space with a logical design.

What they said is most needed for a new high school building to succeed is community “buy-in” and honest, transparent communication.

Facility options

Splett went on to discuss six concepts for restructuring the school district’s facilities. “I really stress that these are plans; these are not the plan,” he said.

The six original options were further narrowed to three plans that Splett presented to the school board:

  1. Renovate the existing buildings “as is” for educational adequacy.

  2. Repurpose Century School to serve Early Childhood-6, build a new 7-9 school on the Frank White site and renovate the high school to serve grades 10-12.

  3. Change Century to Early Childhood-6 and build a new 7-12 school.

Option 1: ‘Renovate as-is’

For the option to renovate the facilities as-is, Splett presented a plan that would cost an estimated $36 million. This would cover deferred maintenance issues while bringing most of the areas currently falling short of state adequacy guidelines into compliance. However, there would be no space after the renovations to accommodate future growth.

Changes at Century School would include repurposing the current middle school and elementary offices; building a new middle school gym; adding a new middle school office with a secured entry on the west side of the building; moving the elementary office into a current classroom next to the east entrance and securing that entry; and adding two new classrooms at the end of the kindergarten pod.

This plan would also add a new staff and visitor parking area and drop-off/pickup area on the west (middle school) side of the building, which would relieve some of the congestion at the curb outside the east (elementary) entryway.

Frank White improvements would also include redesigning the main office redesign and adding a secured entry area for the early childhood program. Splett explained that under state school safety guidelines, “you need to come in and get credentialed before getting access to the rest of the facility.”

At the high school, a new gym would be added to increase space for physical education classes and provide a community “partnership space.” Music and auditorium spaces would be updated. The high school office would move to where the theater scene shop is now, providing a secured entry next to the commons area. A new scene shop would be added and special education classrooms would move into the current offices. Classroom walls would also be moved to ensure they are the right size.

The media center would be updated to provide more “collaborative, hands-on, project-based” space, Splett said. The art, graphic design and home economics areas would also be reconfigured.

Option 2: New 7-9 wing

The second plan Splett presented was to retool Century School to serve Early Childhood-grade 6 and the high school for grades 10-12. It would then tear down Frank White and add a new wing on the site for grades 7-9, a new partnership space/gym, community education, special education and district offices and more, on an all-in budget of about $53 million.

Splett said this plan would bring all areas of the school’s educational facilities into full compliance with state guidelines, including space for further growth.

Other additions or changes at the high school would include relocating the kitchen, CTE, special education, and Alternative Learning Center and creating “flex space” for hands-on learning. It would also relocate the high school office and scene shop similar to Plan 1, bring the boys’ locker room up from the basement and improve the band and choir rooms.

Splett said having all six grades under one roof would allow grade 7-8 students to take shop, agriculture and business courses that they currently don’t have at Century School, while leaving room at Century for Early Childhood through grade 6 classes without building gym and office additions.

Grades 3-4 would move into what is now the middle school wing while Early Childhood and K-2 would spread out across the elementary side. Space would also become available for exploratory labs and activity rooms, early childhood special education, the Century Adventures after-school program, new offices with secured entries, an early childhood library and staff work rooms.

Option 3: New 7-12 building

Splett also proposed an option to build a new high school with room for 800 students (grades 7-12), costing approximately $77 million. Including Century renovations for Early Childhood-6 similar to Option 2, the total budget would run around $87 million,

This plan also includes new spaces for the district, special ed and community ed offices, the high school pool and auditorium.

Again, Option 3 meets all state standards for educational adequacy, including future space needs. Splett noted that Options 2 and 3 also check off nearly all of the priorities identified by school leadership and community stakeholders.

Additional items could include tennis court replacement, budgeted at $625,000, and a bus garage, expected to cost $3.25 million.

Funding the improvements

Regarding the school district’s ability to finance one of these projects, Greg Crowe, an Ehlers municipal advisor, shared an analysis comparing the tax burden in the Park Rapids School District to other districts in the area.

For example, the owner of a $200,000 home paid school property taxes of approximately $553 last year in Park Rapids, compared to $654 in Bemidji, $678 in Nevis, $796 in Laporte, $861 in Menahga, or $847 at the state average.

Looking at the tax impact of different financing options for Plan 2 (the $53 million project), Crowe compared what it would cost the same homeowner if the school took a $40-43 million question to the voters, then made up the rest of the cost through other funding sources, compared to the same project funded entirely by a voter-approved bond.

In the first scenario, the $40-$43 million bond would cost the owner of a $200,000 home $56 annually. Additional funding options that the school board could directly approve include a $2 million Indoor Air Quality bond (adding $3 to that taxpayer’s levy); a $5.5 million abatement bond, which can only be used for parking lots (adding another $35 to the levy); a $4 million lease purchase ($26 more); for a total annual levy increase of $119.

Meanwhile, raising the entire project amount in one voter-approved bond would increase the same homeowner’s annual levy by an estimated $106. As a result, Crowe estimated that the school property tax levy from that $200,000 homeowner would total $659 per year.

On agricultural homestead land, the amount levied, for example, on land valued at $4,000 per acre, would total $.75 per acre if the project is funded from multiple sources, or $.53 per acre if it is all funded by a voter-approved levy.

Crowe also presented a chart illustrating how the project would affect school district’s bonded debt as its existing debt is retired, if costs of the proposed improvements are financed by a single vote that would approve bond issues in 2020 and 2024.

Coming events

Splett said he and Bagstad have been meeting with potential community partnerships and planned to go back to the teachers to present the results of their latest prioritization sessions.

He said they will go back to the community in March, following up on last year’s listening sessions with a series of reports about the educational adequacy findings and the different plans being considered.

“We want to look at the floorplans and have a little bit of discussion around that,” said Splett. “Take a look at the demographics of our population, and then look at the financial piece of it and how’s it going to affect me.”

The process will wrap up with a series of surveys during April, and “if everything goes smoothly,” Splett said, the school board will decide in May what levy request, if any, to place on the August referendum ballot.

“I’m hoping that we get some good feedback,” said Bagstad. “Now people will start digging in and seeing what we can and can’t do, kind of take a peek at that dollar threshold.”

In conclusion, Bagstad said, “I’m very excited about where we are in this process.”

For more information about the district’s facility planning process, visit www.project309.org.