In May 2009, a District Facility Plan was completed by DLR Architects and Engineers and is available at the School Administration offices. The facility plan describes steps taken by District and community participants to determine the District's existing and future needs as well as guidelines and standards for implementation of the plan with the focus on educational excellence and student achievement. The decision to build a new Middle School is based on recommendations in the District Facility Plan.
From January through May 2008, the District held 14 workshops and meetings that included over 100 participants from the District and the community. The priorities from these meetings are best summarized as follows:
The long-range plan should:
1. Consider alternatives necessary to respond to declining enrollment.
2. Be open to a variety of grade configurations
3. Consider options for re-purposing one or more elementary schools
4. Provide integration of educational technology
5. Consider options for Middle School campus
6. Emphasize collaboration and teaming.
After these workshops, a series of public presentations were made to the school board and the District staff. These sessions reviewed the information and presented long range planning options for consideration.
While the long-range plan looks at all of the District's facilities, this piece is intended only to discuss the Middle Schools.
DLR Group, the architects and engineers who facilitated the District's long-range facility plan, compiled the information on the Middle Schools based upon the workshops and their inspections of the facilities. There are serious issues with traffic and student safety around Fair Oaks due to its location near major streets. Each day, students cross Fifth Avenue South and other major streets to meet their parents for pickup or they walk home across these streets. Parking is inadequate without convenient adjacent parking lots. The existing topography and the surrounding streets limit future building expansion.
The assessment also found that many of the classrooms at Fair Oaks are undersized. Restrooms, nurse's rooms and all meeting rooms are also deficient. Security at Fair Oaks is also problem for classrooms with original doors and glass panels with locks and skeleton keys which work only sporadically. Also the boilers at Fair Oaks are at the end of their life and need replacement as do much of the gas, steam and heating system piping. The roofs and walls leak in many areas of the building with moisture retained behind the plaster.
The study also found that there was no space for expansion at Phillips without costs for condemnation of adjoining homes, relocating streets and utilities. Staff parking is inadequate. Parking on neighborhood streets is necessary for staff and visitors. With the gymnasium on an adjacent site, safety is a concern for teachers and students. The bus drop-off and pickup area on a major street also creates safety and traffic flow issues.
The study also found that steam radiators in Phillip's classrooms are failing and leaking. There are ongoing sanitary drainage problems and the system requires replacement.
Renovation of Fair Oaks and Phillips which were considered and discussed by the board with an eye toward expected future enrollment and cost. Phillips was built in 1922 and Fair Oaks in 1933. They are both beautiful buildings. Renovations could be performed at either facility, but cost would be significant and construction would have to be phased around the schedule so that school could continue. The District would have to purchase or rent temporary classrooms to educate the students from each building during renovations thus increasing the costs significantly. Renovations would take anywhere from two to three years. There is also the issue of asbestos removal in each building. Building decisions should be made with the thought that the building will be used for 40 to 60 years. Educational delivery has changed along with technology over the last 60 to 80 years these buildings have served the community.
It was recommended that the District not use Fair Oaks and Phillips for the next 40 years due to the high cost of ongoing maintenance and renovation of deteriorating buildings even if renovated. These buildings have been maintained extremely well by the District staff, but replacement of major mechanical systems and other significant renovations are needed to continue the use of these buildings. The cost of renovating Fair Oaks and Phillips was estimated to be approximately $36.5 million dollars. The District has budgeted $30 million dollars to construct a new Middle School.
There are a number of efficiencies to be gained by constructing a new fifth-through-eighth-grade Middle School. A number of spaces can be shared between grades five through eight that would have to be maintained separately with two buildings. For example, an administrative area in each building is estimated to be approximately 3,050 square feet each totaling 6,100 square feet, if the buildings were separate. By combining the administrative areas into one building, the administrative area could be limited to a total of 3,700 square feet and thus save 2,400 square feet. If construction costs are estimated at $150 per square foot, which is conservative, this alone results in a savings of $360,000.00 in administrative office construction. Other space savings can be found in going from two to one cafeteria, music room, library, etc. There can also be significant savings in staffing and administration by going to one Middle School.
The District looked at five or six possible sites within the city for a new Middle School. The location that was selected east of the High School was considered the best choice in a number of respects. It is close to the High School which helps reduce transportation costs. It is located in an area with immediate access to main streets; 10th Avenue North and 32nd Street.In addition, a new street will be constructed extending Sixth Avenue North to connect 29th Street and 32nd Street. This new road will reduce traffic on 10th Avenue North and will provide additional access to the Middle School from the South. This will improve student safety and traffic flow. While the new location is not as central to the community as the current Middle School, it was the most centrally located space of sufficient size for construction of a new fifth- through eighth-grade Middle School.
The land was purchased at a cost of $25,000.00 per acre. This price was a result of considerable negotiations with the Litchfield family. The School District consulted experts in commercial real estate in these negotiations. Land in this neighborhood has sold in recent years for considerably more than $25,000.00 per acre. Considering the location and the cost of this parcel compared to other land sold in that area, the purchase price was considered to be very favorable for the District.
The purchase of this land is funded through the one-cent sales tax. The District made a decision to fund the construction of the new Middle School through the state wide one-cent sales tax so as not to ask for a property tax increase. Money generated from the one-cent sales tax can only be used for infrastructure purposes such as construction, remodeling and maintenance of facilities. It cannot be used as part of the School District's general budget towards programming, teachers or other expenses. The District will likely be seeking general obligation bonds to fund future projects under discussion such as replacing Duncombe Elementary and remodeling portions of the High School.
The District held a number of public discussions that led to the publication of the District's long range facility plan in May 2009. There have been numerous public meetings and workshops regarding the Middle School. This public process will continue. Input from the community is encouraged, welcomed and appreciated. The District's architect is developing alternative plans for the new school that will be based on public input. These designs will be subject to public review. It is anticipated that the planning process will be completed in early spring 2011 with construction completed by 2013.
As the community moves forward, with an eye toward the future, there will be numerous opportunities for input from the public. Of course, all are welcome at the regular school board meetings. There are two opportunities for public comment at the school board meetings. There has been a great deal of work by the District, the board, the community participants and the architects trying to address the educational needs of the children today and for the 21st century.
The Board of Education has always tried to be cautious and responsible with the taxpayers' money. The board strives to examine all options to reach decisions that are in the best interest of the children and families of Fort Dodge. These decisions are made with educational excellence and student achievement at the forefront.
When completed, the new Middle School is expected to be a beautiful, practical facility that will not only benefit the education of thousands of students now and in the future but will serve this community in a number of ways without an increase in taxes for the citizens of Fort Dodge.
Jerry Schnurr is president of the Fort Dodge Community School District Board of Education.