A split vote over high school renovation

Count our lot with the minority, for what it’s worth, from Wednesday’s Storm Lake School Board vote to award a $19.7 million bid to renovate the high school. The vote was 3-2 (Steinfeld, Skibsted and Koth over McKenna and Dierking) to go ahead with the project, even though it is roughly $2 million higher than anyone but the bidder expected. McKenna and Dierking pressed to split the project into phases and rebid in January. That could have saved $4 million.

Rebidding the project in chunks should have attracted more bidders than two. It would have attracted smaller, local contractors who might not have wanted to wed a big general contractor for up to three years. Interest rates are not rising. Some construction materials are declining in price. We suspect the district would have been better off, but we never will know.

Voters who approved levies to support the project thought they were approving something in the $17-18 million range. Board President McKenna says the figure might be closer to $22 million when all is said and done. The district’s bonding advisor, Piper Jaffray, tells the board that the district has sufficient funds to swallow the entire $19.7 million renovation in one bite. It also claims, incredulously to us, that there will be money left over to deal with overcrowding in the elementary and middle schools.

The overcrowding concerns are real and immediate. The need to tackle all the high school’s problems at once with a problematic budget could have been deferred so the most urgent problems could be attacked first. Recall, for our gratification at least, that we urged the district to come up with a single comprehensive facilities plan that could be bonded together so all needs could be addressed according to priority. Possibly the architect could throw in this service for free since it was so far off on the construction estimate for the high school. Our two cents’ worth for that plan is that the district should not get rid of South School just yet. We might need it sooner rather than later for classroom use.

All that said, the fact remains that the high school has the same needs that voters saw when they approved the supporting levies. We have the architectural plans, and we have a bid that the board can now try to trim at the margins. It remains to be seen how many door locks and window treatments it takes to come up with some $2 million (or $4 million) in savings. That will be one tough row to hoe. But the job must be done. The district must do the best it can to make the project come in on budget ($19 million, say).

A few other observations are in order:

How refreshing it was to see the school board argue with some passion competing positions. This issue was not decided over drinks or over the telephone. It was hashed out in public with a split vote for all to see. Nobody can accuse the Storm Lake School Board or administration from hiding anything. McKenna told us before the meeting that he had not politicked since the bids were opened. That’s the way Iowa government is supposed to work.

Supt. Carl Turner is just the right person to be steering the ship of state when divisions arise. He maintains a constructive attitude, he continues to encourage discussion among board and staff about how to proceed, and he has tried to keep the public informed. He is trying hard to address all the district’s daunting facilities needs while running the most challenging school district in Iowa. He is in the thick of it while trying to keep his head.

Turner tells us that he will do everything he can to contain costs. Ultimately, he said, the majority of the board had to decide whether to lop off a big part of the project, take a gamble on rebidding or just go ahead with tight-fisted project management of the bird in hand. The last option was selected after a vigorous debate. Turner is prepared for the blowback. And he looks forward to a “new” high school that properly serves the district. We join him in that wish.