ELY – ISD 696 officials made their case to district tax payers for a $10 million bonding referendum for a school facility renovation project and voters answered on Tuesday with their approval.
Strong support in the cities of Ely and Winton, and a narrower margin in the Town of Morse, resulted in a preliminary raw vote margin of 927 “yes” votes and 512 “no” votes. Absentee votes in Morse and two small unorganized townships were not available by press time.
Taxpayers were asked to approve an increase in their property taxes for the next 20 years to help pay for a $20 million project that will improve the Ely school buildings by connecting the campus into one safer facility, adding more space for learning and improving the overall condition of the 100-year-old buildings.
Superintendent Erik Erie monitored election returns Tuesday night in the school district board room.
“This all looks pretty good,” he told the Timberjay as he tracked the incoming vote totals. “We don’t have all the official results, but one of the taglines from some of our supporters, ‘strong community, strong schools,’ seems to be validated by these returns I’m seeing.”
Approval of the effort, initiated nearly two years ago, clears the way for a project that will feature renovation of the district’s existing buildings with new construction, including the creation of a new structure that links the Memorial and Washington buildings, and includes a secure entry, second gymnasium, commons space, cafeteria, renovated industrial tech learning spaces, and classroom renovations.
Voter support for the project indicated a 694-335 margin within the city of Ely. That was a difference between a 448-246 count of in-person ballots on Tuesday and a 246-89 margin among absentee ballots. Winton voters approved the measure by a 38-14 margin. In-person voting in Morse Township resulted in a 195-163 favorable count. Other absentee vote totals were not available
In September of 2018, ISD 696 secured a School Safety Grant of $495,000 from the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) and plans were developed to join the buildings with a $1.9 million structure, basically a secure entrance with hallways between buildings and not much else.
“This all started with former Superintendent Kevin Abrahamson’s recognition, and the school board’s vision, that our school campus needed improvements,” Erie said. “That initial state grant to help link our buildings snowballed into the formation of a community advisory committee and a School Perception survey that showed there was strong support in the community for a facility renovation project.”
District officials applied to the state Department of Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation (IRRR) in hopes of securing more funding and were awarded a $7 million grant. The district committed $500,000 from their general fund balance as well as $1.6 million from Long Term Maintenance Funds (LTFM) to bring the total funding for the project up to $19.65 million.
This spring and summer, Erie spearheaded an effort to gain community support for the project. He conducted presentations to various community groups around the area and supervised the distribution of a direct mailing brochure to all district households. His columns were published in local newspapers, and social media was used to get the word out about the school project.
In addition, the school district conducted three public forums this summer, in a virtual format, to provide more opportunities for voters to have their questions answered about the project and the cost.
Property tax increases on a residential homestead property with an estimated market value of $100,000 would be about $50 per year for 20 years. Property tax increases on a commercial property with an estimated market value of $250,000 would be just over $300 per year for 20 years.
The wrecking ball needed to demolish the former heating plant to make room for the new campus-linking structure won’t be pulling up this week, but Erie was confident Tuesday night that work on the Memorial building roof replacement and the continuation of the window replacement project on the west side of the Washington building could potentially get started this fall.
“We can’t get ahead of ourselves. The board will gather in special session on Monday to canvass the election,” he said. “Our facilities committee will soon meet with the architect and construction managers and report back to the board on the next steps. We will consult with our public finance people regarding the sale of the bonds for the project.”
With the approval of the project this summer, construction bids could be ready by the end of the year.
“There could be shovels in the ground next spring,” Erie said. “We will need the 2021 and 2022 building seasons to hopefully be completed and ready to go in the fall of 2022.”
He said the ongoing coronavirus pandemic could impact the various phases of construction. “The facilities committee and the board will certainly be looking at priorities and re-evaluate with the public health requirements of COVID-19 in mind. Some priorities may be shifted. For instance, there could be a greater emphasis on our ventilation systems and plumbing renovations. They were already slated to have significant upgrades, but we will be looking at that closer.”
For more information on the school facility project, call Erie at 218-365-6166. Details are also available on the ISD 696 website, www.ely.k12.mn.us.