For the past several months, members of the Emmetsburg Community School Board and school administrators have been tossing around the idea of building an addition onto the district's West Elementary facility. The possibility of a new, full-size gymnasium with seating for around 300, a new hot lunch kitchen and commons area and administrative offices would comprise the proposed addition.
While talk is cheap, the old adage says "money talks."
With West Elementary being built in the early 1950's and having two additions, the most recent in the early 2000's, the school is the oldest facility in the school district. Space concerns have grown tighter and tighter after the district closed the South (Little Red) Elementary in the 1990's and moved all Kindergarten classes to West. With enrollment increasing slightly in past years, there are numerous occasions on any given school day where students are found in the hallways of the building, participating in such activities as Talented and Gifted programs, Reading Recovery and Title One programs. And, administrators note that in 2014, there will be a need for an additional classroom, due to class size.
With those concerns in mind, the district brought architect Matt Bayse of FEH and Associates of Sioux City to West to evaluate the building, visit with the staff and develop a possible plan for an addition. Once those rough plans were completed, Bayse met with the board earlier this month in a special work session to talk about the issues.
Bayse reported that he had developed a rough plan for an addition costing roughly $2.6 million, noting that such a plan would be the most economical solution for the district's projected needs.
"This is actually the best time in the past 30 years for construction projects," Bayse told the school board members. "Bids have been really good lately because contractors are hungry for work."
According to Bayse, construction bids of late have run in the range of $105 to $160 per square foot, making it a little tougher to give a more precise estimate.
"After looking at plans and talking with Matt, we're thinking we might be closer to the $2.8 million figure with unknowns, but this is still a very good time to consider building," noted board member Rick Brennan.
"Have we totally not given any consideration to building out here at the high school?" asked board member Karla Anderson.
Superintendent John Joynt noted that the possibility had not been discussed but could be.
"I think the community would have problems with bringing fourth graders out here to the middle school," observed board member Tammy Naig.
Anderson asked if the basic building at West was still structurally sound.
Bayse indicated that the original West building, which was constructed in 1950, and had been added onto twice, was still very functional. "The structure is sound, there just need to be some interior upgrades to adapt to technology."
As the board talked about Bayse's preliminary plan, the discussion turned to possible ways to fund a construction project. Brennan noted that through borrowing against the district's Physical Plant and Equipment Levy fund, or PPEL, the construction could be paid off in eight years, at current projections. "To me, the shorter time frame on something like this, the better," Brennan explained. "We have to take care of the kids, that's what this is all about. Having kids out in the hallways to have classes, is, in my book, simply unacceptable."
"For all the problems I've heard about at West, this is truly the best time to build and to borrow to do this," Bayse added.
When a question was raised regarding possible financial risks of borrowing against PPEL funds, which can only be used for equipment, buildings and repairs, and not for salaries, Brennan was matter-of-fact in his response. "There's always going to be risk in borrowing, but the key is to mitigate that risk and, in this case, do what's best for our kids."
A second work session focused on potential funding for such a project with Matt Gillaspie of Piper Jaffray of Des Moines, who re-iterated the point that interest rates for borrowing were at historic lows from .3 percent to 1.7 percent for a recent bond re-financing he had worked with another school district.
"You basically have a couple of options, using your PPEL funds or to use your Sales Tax Income funds, but those are not as secure as PPEL funds," Gillaspie noted. "Generally speaking, PPEL funding is the best option for you, as it gives you better rates and less fees in the long run."
With lots of information to digest and consider, and a request for the architect to re-work his preliminary plans for a possible addition to better fit the existing space at West, the board will continue to discuss the matter in an upcoming Superintendent's Advisory Committee meeting.