The Esko School system is rounding the bend on the last of its long-term projects.
To the relief of Esko School Superintendent Aaron Fischer, everything should be done in time for the start of school Tuesday, Sept. 5. The new boilers will be installed, asbestos removed and aged water pipes containing lead in the solder will be shiny and new (and lead free).
The original Esko school was built in 1923 with additions built in 1954, 1960 and the final addition in 1998. Unlike many of the surrounding districts, Esko officials have no plans to replace their aging facility.
"We wouldn't even consider rebuilding," said Fischer. "Our building is very solid."
Fischer said the 90-plus-year-old building is in good shape but the mechanics of the school have been slowly wearing out over the years. While Fischer and the custodians work hard to keep up with maintaining the old building, sometimes worn parts break. Some items were able to be repaired while others needed to be replaced.
"We would rather maintain and spend a little now to save a lot later," said Fischer.
The old boiler water pumps failed during the 2015-2016 school year and needed to be repaired. During the same school year, a pipe in the sprinkler system froze which resulted in flooding at one end of the building. Students were sent home that day per the fire code. A few years ago, an original sewer pipe burst in the basement and needed to be repaired.
Fischer, school board members and staff came up with a list of items that needed to be replaced and planned out a budget. The projects spanned several years.
A window project was completed during the summer of 2015. It began in the Lincoln addition, which was built in 1954 and still had its original windows. The windows were cracked and discolored. Besides allowing heat to escape, they also let the rain in.
Some of the classrooms had water leaking every time it rained, which would seep down inside the brick walls and rot from the inside out.
Part of the building was heated by inefficient steam heat. Some classrooms would get hot, others were cool.
The 2017 summer projects targeted the furnace problems, replacing the two outdated, large boilers with much smaller, energy-efficient gas furnaces. It also included replacing univents in many of the classrooms as well as removing asbestos. The old heating vents had been wrapped in asbestos, plus there was loose asbestos in some of the walls. The decision to remove the asbestos added time and money to the project, but Fischer and the school board agreed it was well worth it.
"We're trying to make this a healthier building," said Fischer. "Even though it put the project a little over budget, the board felt it was important to do now, especially since the crews were here and everything is opened up. It would be cheaper to do it now than bring the crew back."
About 60 percent of the lights will be replaced with more energy efficient LED lights and some of the classrooms will have cabinetry replaced before the start of school.
Fischer had built a few extra weeks into the project timeline, planning that something would happen and take longer than anticipated. There was no way to know how much asbestos was in the building until they started taking down the ceiling. It took three weeks to remove what asbestos they could and seal-in any asbestos they found but couldn't remove. Once the asbestos was removed, workers had to come in and power wash the area to remove any little pieces clinging to the building.
Currently Fischer estimates the project will be completed the last week in August instead of the second week as originally planned. He acknowledged he had heard rumors that the start of school would be pushed back due to the project delay. He wants to squash the gossip and let everyone know school will start on the scheduled date.
The estimated total project cost was $4 million. The asbestos removal costs of $385,404 was paid out of the capital funding and not part of the project cost.
The $4,020,000 bond was paid out of the long-term facilities money.
Fischer explained that capital money needs to be used to purchase physical assets with a multi-year life or building-maintenance-type projects, such as replacing roofs or windows. Capital money can not be spent on the everyday costs of running a school or salaries.
The operating fund is used to pay the teachers, buy books and for any other operational costs.
Long-term facilities money is made up of 60 percent state aid and 40 percent from a local levy passed a few years ago. The bond will be paid off using long-term facilities money.
"Anything not paid for by the bond, I will be paying out of our capital money," explained Fischer. "This year we chose to not spend as much capital money as we typically would. We reserved a fair amount of the capital money in case there were overruns so we would have money to pay for that."
Esko Schools have held steady at roughly 1,200 students per school year, according to Fischer.
"We limit open enrollment so as not to overload the building," Fischer explained. He added they prefer to fill the student limits, not exceed them.
Fischer feels the money has been well spent. The new additions should last about 30 years.
"It's a very good investment," Fischer said. "It should last as long as everything is maintained."