Parents and staff members long have dreamed of a renovated American Indian Magnet School in St. Paul, and they helped plan for it, too, creating models by putting blocks over blueprints of the East Side school.

Designs were drawn up featuring state-of-the-art science labs, a redesigned circular commons area that could accommodate powwows and a studio to be used for the teaching of Native languages.

But discovery of mold under vinyl coverings drove up the projected costs, and as concerns were raised about blown estimates at school projects elsewhere in the St. Paul school district, thoughts of a renovation gave way to questions of whether a new school should be built instead, and if construction still could begin this year.

Last week, the school board heeded the community’s wishes by giving its go-ahead to the $53.3 million renovation — setting the stage for bids to be awarded in April.

Leading the way was Board Member Steve Marchese, who two months earlier wondered aloud whether the American Indian Magnet project should be reprioritized within the entire portfolio of school building projects to be undertaken by the district in the coming years.

He decided otherwise after a recent board work session that involved the issue of renovating vs. rebuilding schools, as well as a visit to American Indian Magnet that helped persuade him of the project’s importance.

“It is such an anchor for the East Side and such an anchor for the Indigenous community in this city and in this state,” he said.

Board Member Chauntyll Allen, who came aboard after the project was designed, said she was pleased with how it honored the Dakota people and their land.

Closer scrutiny

The school board’s decision also was the product of a more rigorous review process put in place after a first wave of building projects soared past initial estimates by tens of millions of dollars.

Each project now will undergo a series of steps, or “gate checks,” with the third such step involving board approval of schematic designs. That is when the scope of a project is set, and its budget, too — moves that are designed to increase transparency and accountability.

Last week, the school board also approved plans for heating-and-cooling improvements at Phalen Lake Hmong Studies Magnet ($7.2 million) and for renovations at Frost Lake Elementary ($36 million) and the District Service Facility ($17.1 million).

American Indian Magnet drew the most attention, however, after its cost estimate jumped from $38.5 million — as reported in an October study — to $53.3 million. Tom Parent, the district’s facilities director, said in December that the investigation into mold concerns led to a conclusion that the interior walls should be demolished.

The cost of a new school was estimated at $88.7 million.

At the Feb. 11 work session, board members saw what a new building on the site might look like, and learned the project might require a large retaining wall that could create a disconnect with the Dayton’s Bluff neighborhood. The powwow space also would have to be relocated to an area away from on-site parking.

Principal Tim Brown, who attended the work session, noted then that he had worked at Anishinabe Academy in Minneapolis when it had to relocate from Lake Street and Hiawatha Avenue, and that the school suffered.

“Sometimes folks don’t move with that ship,” he told board members.

Last week, Brown returned with Julie Downwind, the school’s teacher coach. Downwind told the board she had been involved in the design process and heard others at the school express doubts that the project would ever happen. The uncertainty and skepticism hurt, she said. She urged members to back the renovation, as it had been designed.

“It really is the best thing you can do for our community,” Downwind said.