Financing soon will be in place for the renovation of St. Paul’s American Indian Magnet School, but whether the school board actually gives its go-ahead to the project remains to be seen.
That’s because the district — stung by soaring costs in the first phase of its long-range facilities plan — has adopted a more rigorous review process requiring another major vote on the work itself.
The project also is expensive: $53 million, according to recent estimates. That has given rise to the question: Why not build a new school?
Aside from the debate over that project’s fate, the change in the review process signals an effort to bring greater transparency and accountability to the multiyear facilities plan.
When the next vote is taken, the project’s scope will have been set, and the budget, too, said Aaron Sarfati, project manager for the Dallas-based engineering firm Jacobs, which was hired by the district to study its facilities management practices.
Contrast that with the district’s experience at Humboldt High School. There, costs rose from $26.8 million to $48 million — an increase primarily attributable to an expansion of the project’s scope. The district opted to accommodate changes in special-education instruction and had to replace the school’s mechanical systems, too.
In an October report, Jacobs concluded that the district did not overpay for the work itself in a first wave of projects that exceeded initial estimates by tens of millions of dollars. But it also recommended that the district create a master schedule of projects to allow for easier monitoring by the school board and the public, and regularly post information as invoices are paid.
This month, the school board put the next round of projects on track by approving $70 million in financing — funds that are expected to become available in February. In addition to American Indian Magnet, the money is expected to go toward improvements to Cherokee Heights Elementary, Ramsey Middle School and the District Service Facility, as well as the completion of work underway at Como Park Senior High.
Tom Parent, the district’s facilities director, said cost estimates for American Indian Magnet jumped from the $38.5 million reported in the Jacobs study to $53 million after an investigation of suspected mold under vinyl wall coverings this summer led to the conclusion that the interior walls should be demolished.
The renovation plus addition has been seen as preferable to building new because of site limitations and worries about where students will go while a new school is built.
But the district also is reviewing its entire portfolio of facilities projects and is expected to come up with new priorities in the coming months. Board Member Steve Marchese, in turn, has suggested American Indian Magnet should be considered within the entire spectrum of projects.
Jackie Turner, the district’s chief operations officer, said a delay in approving American Indian Magnet could put spring construction in jeopardy — and push the project back a year. She added the district has been working with the school community and administration and had garnered support for the project.
Elsewhere, the district is considering scrapping plans to renovate Bruce Vento Elementary — partly because of its outdated design.
In addition to the eventual vote on American Indian Magnet, Turner has proposed that the board hold a workshop on the issue of renovating vs. rebuilding schools. A date has not been set.