School board hears Early Childhood Center plan

Friday, December 1, 2017
A crowd gathered to hear discussion on a potential Early Childhood Center bond vote, with opening possible in 2020. / Dana Larsen

“Reality slapped us in the face right now,” Storm Lake Superintendent of Schools Carl Turner said, as the planning toward a new Early Childhood Center was presented to the board of education Wednesday night.

That reality is that the district doesn’t have nearly enough money or bonding capacity to cover the cost for a facility of the size needed, which would host an estimated 600 students from pre-K through first grade, along with about 70 staff members.

Consulting architects from the DLR Group, which also worked on the high school project, estimated size for a building to replace the aging former East School at 122,500 square feet, and based on other school projects in the state coming in around $210 per square foot, the facility could cost perhaps $26 million. With the district still owing over $18 million on the elementary construction and high school expansion, only about $18.7 million in bonding capacity at most is available.

The architects presented an option - building the facility in two phases. They suggested building space for pre-kindergarten first with the available money, including a full gym, media center and other spaces that will be needed, with the kindergarten and first grade to be added in a building expansion later. East would need to continue operating until both phases were completed.

Turner agrees that if phases are needed, preschool would be the immediate need. Although crowded, the relatively new elementary could continue to serve kindergarten and first grade for a few more years. Some in the audience, however, were leery of having ongoing future construction taking place on the Early Childhood Center while young children are in the building.

Architects estimate that under phasing, an initial building of 71,000 square feet could be built for $18,500,000 with an addition of 50,000 square feet later for around $13 million, through that cost could rise to near $15 million by 2022 with increasing construction costs. It was noted that the recent high school project came in at $2 million more than expected, and that the district would not have the cash on hand to deal with such an issue if it happened on the Early Childhood Center.

Architect Andrew Van Leeuwen reviews potential sites for the new school complex for a crowd at a school meeting Wednesday.

This week’s meeting was a first opportunity for a citizens advisory group that has been working for several months toward conceptualizing an Early Childhood Center to meet with the full school board. “We’re getting to the point now where some decisions will have to be made,” Turner said.

There are only three time periods when a public bond vote could be held in 2018 - April, September or December. While a decision has yet to be made, the group seemed to lean toward the September option, which would allow time to designs to be drawn, and an ideal time period to promote the election toward the end of the school year. Momentum could be lost if the vote were a full year away, the architects said of a December date.

With 17 months of construction expected, it is hoped that the building could be ready for the start of the school year in fall of 2020.

DLR Architect Andrew West encouraged the group. “I hope you are as excited about this as we are… think big, about how important this could be to the community and the children.” To be successful, proponents will need to be very vocal with a consistent message, he said.

The school district itself cannot campaign for passage of the bond vote, only encourage people to vote. A volunteer bond committee could be formed to campaign for approval, which unlike the high school project, would require a 60 percent supermajority. The biggest enemy in such a process, the architects suggested, is voter apathy.

The visioning process began in April and May with a list of guiding principles for a new building. That will remain the “North Star” that planning and design will continue to be based on. These principles call for a building that is child-centered and adaptive, colorful and creative, attuned to nature and the surrounding environment, fluid and flexible, embraces the district’s diversity, and encourages collaboration.

“Space needs to work around the students, not the other way around,” West said.

Discussion focused on a site for the building. Nine areas around the city were originally considered, and have been tentatively narrowed down to three, all in the west part of Storm Lake for proximity to the existing elementary and middle school, but due to traffic concerns, not directly adjacent. All have the necessary space for the building, 225 parking spaces, playground, bus drop offs, and potential to expand. One site is across Abner Bell Road to the west of the middle school, the others north of Milwaukee Avenue. Two of the sites would require annexation into the city.

The next step would be to select a realtor to begin contacting the landowners, in hopes that site selection can be nailed down before the issue goes to voters. Currently, the district does not know if any of the sites will be available for purchase, so there is the possibility that other areas will need to be considered, Turner said. District officials say they do not have the power or desire to utilize eminent domain to obtain property.

The beginning point for planning is to offer 12 sections of pre-kindergarten, and 10 each of kindergarten and first grade, though there has been some concern whether that is enough. The architects suggest a gym that would seat 300, dedicated art and music areas (that could be delayed if the project is phased), a nurse/clinic office, science lab, and other special needs areas.

Three locations in west Storm Lake have been identified as leading possibilities, as numbered at right.

Although the possibility has been discussed, a day care center was not included in the proposal the architects reviewed this week. When asked, Turner said day care could be phased in later if the community desires. There is a clear need, he said, but every square foot added to the facility would raise cost. “We have to hit the sweet spot, get the space we need but not so much we can’t pay for it.” He noted that deciding to include a day care in the school could alienate some voters, and excluding it could alienate others who are concerned about cost.

One audience member encouraged the school board to make sure it builds large enough, noting that a relatively new elementary is already short of space.

“If we could have gone back in time, we should have built bigger” on both the elementary and middle school, Turner responded, but at the time, planners also had to deal with funding limitations.

Hopes are that an Early Childhood Center could accept the kindergarten and first grade students from the elementary, with fifth grade then moved from middle to elementary, relieving some of the space crunch in each school. Projections are for the elementary to be paid off in 2022, but the high school project debt will run to 2029.

Audience members also wondered if the sale of the East site could offset some of the cost of a new building. District officials said that the former North School site sold for about $300,000, but they noted that the East site is also in use by the Head Start program in the former Gingerbread building now owned by Upper Des Moines Opportunity. The District wants to continue working with that program, but it has not yet been decided if the program would move into the Early Childhood Center. No interest has been expressed in buying East.

While much remains to be decided, “One thing we can’t do is not do anything,” Turner said, noting that East is old and not designed for needs of early learners.

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