Wheels are in motion for Cloquet Schools facilities planningWhile Monday’s meeting of the Cloquet School Facilities Steering Committee was mostly about facts, figures and projections, one couldn’t miss a glimmer of possibility as well.
By: Wendy Johnson, Pine Journal
While Monday’s meeting of the Cloquet School Facilities Steering Committee was mostly about facts, figures and projections, one couldn’t miss a glimmer of possibility as well.
Out of the discussion of enrollment numbers, maintenance programming and expanding curriculum spaces arose a vision of the construction of a new middle school.
The purpose of Monday’s meeting was to initiate the district’s facilities needs assessment process, approved by the board earlier this year as the first step in what may eventually result in a bonding request.
School Superintendent Ken Scarbrough kicked off the session by introducing Steering Committee members, which included board members Jim Crowley and Dave Battaglia (member Gary Huard was not present), along with Cloquet Middle School Principal Tom Brenner, District Business Manager Kim Josephson and recently contracted consultants Paul Youngquist of Architects Rego + Youngquist of St. Louis Park and H. John Huenink of Kraus-Anderson Construction of Circle Pines.
The board has made no secret of the fact the district’s most crying need is at the aged Cloquet Middle School.
The east wing of the complex dates back as far as the 1930s, with the back end encompassing the gymnasium added in the 1950s. Board members referred to the swimming pool, built in 1955, as “antiquated,” an “energy hog,” and a “money pit,” though acknowledging its value to the community as a recreational outlet.
“The community wants the pool,” said Crowley, “and the district has a girls swim program that uses it. We could use one that’s more useable, modern and energy efficient.”
Crowley said his primary concern for the middle school, however, is the safety of students.
“It’s a disaster waiting to happen,” he stated, referring to the busy streets that run practically right outside the buildings’ front doors, as well as the fact that physical education students have to walk across Highway 33 to get to the park for outdoor recreational activities.
“It’s a blessing we haven’t had anyone killed,” said Crowley.
Brenner added there are interior safety concerns with the school’s facilities as well, citing unsupervised staircases just inside entrances and overall difficulty with limiting unauthorized public access, though the school makes every effort to do what it can by way of locked side doors and office check-in procedures.
Scarbrough expressed concerns over air quality issues (exhaust fumes from incoming and outgoing buses often infiltrate through the building’s air handling systems), lack of green space and “the space kids have to move around in,” he said.
Scarbrough also referenced the benefits of a more modern building in the eyes of students, staff and the public.
“Attendance and discipline are often affected when a district improves its facilities,” said Scarbrough.
Crowley agreed that it’s a matter of function versus style, though both are important.
“We want the kids to be safe, but we also want them to be proud to go here,” he said. “It’s a competitive world out there, and we want those students.”
Huenink said it’s a proven fact that enrollment goes up in a school with “curb appeal,” and the quality of a district’s schools can be a powerful recruiting tool for families thinking of relocating to the area.
Discussion ensued regarding the advisability of simply repairing what’s wrong at the current middle school versus rebuilding or possibly relocating it to the high school campus.
Huenink explained that the usual standard to consider is if the cost of repairing a building is over 60 percent of the amount required to build a new one, the state often won’t support it.
Brenner cited the increasing cost of maintaining the aging middle school building, stating the district recently had to put nearly a million dollars into tuck pointing alone.
“A lot of people like the middle school,” he acknowledged. “For as old as it is, it looks pretty good, but when you go behind the walls, it’s not good. The maintenance issues can’t keep up with the costs.”
Brenner stressed that community buy-in will be important to whatever decisions are made regarding the middle school.
“I think people need to hear what the likely life span of a building such as ours is and understand whether we truly need a new middle school or not,” he stated. “There’s a core group that wants a plan to replace it, but there’s a lot of connection to it as well.”
Youngquist explained there are three areas that need to be addressed in a facilities assessment of the sort being undertaken by the Cloquet School District. The first, he said, is student enrollment, including both the actual numbers today as well as the projected numbers for the years to come.
“What we need to plan for is what you’re going to run into over, say, the next 10 years,” posed Youngquist.
Huenink said the second area to be addressed is the current school facilities themselves, their condition, the work that has already been done on them, and how well they are meeting the needs of the district.
The third planning area, explained Youngquist, is curriculum — what the district’s facilities are being used for currently, where there are areas of shortfalls or redundancies, and what types of spaces the district anticipates will be needed in the coming decade.
“The types of spaces needed by school districts are evolving over time,” said Huenink, “accommodating expanding needs such as new technology and collaborative learning.”
Youngquist also advised that the steering committee explore the various funding options available to the district, including capital, health and safety levies, alternative facility bonds, lease/levy and general obligation bonds (a referendum). Scarbrough said the district is familiar with most of the options and has successfully availed itself of a number of them, both currently and in the past.
Youngquist then went on to discuss a preliminary schedule for the facilities needs assessment process, beginning with the research and development phase now under way. Since the facility team has already been assembled, the next step will be to gather demographic information about the district, interview staff, administration and others and investigate existing conditions of the district’s facilities.
To that end, arrangements were made for the consultants’ engineers to meet with the district’s buildings and grounds supervisors this Friday to tour the school buildings and survey boilers, maintenance equipment and other aspects of the district’s physical plant. On April 3, Youngquist will meet with building principals to assess how the current buildings are being used and what might be lacking for future use.
Later in April, the information gathered will be brought back to the facilities steering committee to develop options on how best to move forward, the associated costs and what the tax impacts of the various options. Along the way, Youngquist said, the school board will be kept up to date on the findings and given the option to revise the options accordingly in order to develop a final plan that makes sense for both the district and the community.
The next step will be to bring the preliminary plans to the community, likely sometime in May. Youngquist said he’s found that often the most effective way of doing that is to invite a cross section of community members to provide feedback and assist in fine tuning the proposal before taking it to the board for a final resolution in June.
Youngquist said the board will then likely go into what he called “referendum mode,” seeking state approval of the final proposal and then backgrounding the community on it in anticipation of a possible referendum vote in November. He said if a referendum should pass at that time, the final design phase for whatever construction is to be completed will get under way, with a possible completion date as early as fall 2015, depending on the project