December 17th, 2013
The Grand Forks School Board last week unanimously approved another step toward building a new elementary school, slated to open in the city's south end in 2015.
JLG architects, the firm designing the building, received approval for its construction documents and permission to start the bidding process Jan. 2.
Architects shared updated images of the new school and the latest cost estimate of $13.8 million for a building with 361 students.
The estimate, which does not include second floor classrooms, leaves the board with some room before hitting its $15 million budget cap, said Lonnie Laffen, JLG president and CEO.
The board has the option of constructing classrooms on both floors of the building, or just on the first floor and part of the second floor and adding classes as they need them, board members said last month.
Second floor construction costs are so far estimated at $721,271 for classrooms on the east end and $1.3 million for classrooms on the west end, according to JLG documents. If construction were completely finished on the second floor, the school would then hold 703 students, said Laffen.
Board President Vicki Ericson said one resident asked why constructing the new school couldn't be delayed considering the district's recent budget shortfall.
The district faced public criticism several months ago after it proposed a 28.6 percent property tax increase, which would have covered its general fund budget of $87.2 million. After public backlash over the size of the increase, the board agreed to a 21.6 percent increase. This led to a deficit of $1.03 million.
Next week, the School Board is expected to vote on cuts suggested by district employees that would eliminate the deficit.
Some board members asked at Tuesday's meeting whether the district's budget audit results, due next month, would provide any reason to delay the construction.
Laffen said a brief delay wouldn't be bad but delaying the bids would be worse, considering UND's $120 million medical school project "will take up a lot of area labor, and I want the (elementary) school to be ahead of that," he said.
Newest board member Doug Carpenter said he'd be "shocked" if the board was told anything new in the audit, and he didn't think that should be a reason to delay bids. Other board members agreed and moved forward with approval.
Plans for the new school were developed by the district to manage increased student enrollment.
Last month, Assistant Superintendent Jody Thompson said total district enrollment increased by 110 students this fall since Aug. 31 last year. Most of that growth was found in the elementary schools, which had 91 more students.
This closely matched earlier projections by the district that led it to consider building a new school in the first place. The Carpenter Projection, a demographic report first created in 2011, predicted enrollment at elementary schools would be reach 3,537 by this fall. Actual enrollment was 3,411.
The accuracy rate of the report is 98.25 percent, Thompson said last month.
"We knew having a demographer would be beneficial, not only for year-to-year planning, but multi-year planning," Thompson said. "He's been very accurate in his projections."
However, neither the Carpenter report nor the school's enrollment report accounts for 45 children in the early childhood special education program, though the district is still responsible for educating them, said Thompson.
Board member Cynthia Shabb requested these students be included in future reports, noting they're still part of the student population and contribute to a building's capacity.
In 2011, a demographic task force was formed to address the growth and adjust the overcrowded south end schools and underused north end schools. The Carpenter Projection was developed that same year to help the task force.
John Carpenter, who creates the report, will release a new five-year projection this spring.