USD 421 committee gets peek at preliminary facilities construction ideas

LYNDON – A group of USD 421 patrons got a first look at several designs for possible facilities improvements during a Nov. 7 meeting of a fledgling facilities focus committee.

USD 421 Superintendent Brian Spencer told the group the purpose of the committee, noting that some of those present were new to the committee that had met twice before. He explained the USD 421 Board of Education had established the committee to develop the proposed facilities project.

“We brought people in to help us assess what would be the best option as we move forward or if we should move forward,” Spencer said.

He said the board, when proposing a construction project, had considered student safety, aging facilities and the availability of state assistance for a facilities bond project.

Spencer said the district has two older school buildings “hooked to some really nice facilities.” When the board was considering how to create a single facility “somewhere we got the idea of bridging across the street,” he said.

Spencer said the school board’s concept was: “If you take down the older stuff and replace what’s in the buildings and hook those together, you got one building and the only thing standing in the way is Sixth Street. It has to be more fiscally responsible, it has to be less expensive to do that than to replace everything on one side of the street.”

He said that although the board believed building across the street would be a less expensive option, preliminary research indicated “crossing Sixth Street is pretty expensive stuff.” He said the board’s next step would be to contract with a construction manager at risk to determine possible costs of several construction options.

Spencer said architect Dave Emig had been hired by the school board “to see what the project could look like.”

Emig presented six preliminary plans to the focus committee, and said he had not estimated costs for any of the plans. A plan that would build across Sixth Street showed that the district’s 1931 high school and 1921 elementary school would be demolished for the construction. Emig said all of the plans he developed would either demolish the old buildings or abandon portions of existing facilities. One of Emig’s ideas closed Sixth Street with barricades only during school hours; another idea utilized monolithic dome designs for classrooms and buildings.

Emig addressed issues raised by the school board about the aging facilities, lack of FEMA storm shelters, and security.

He said that although the facilities need renovations to such features as windows and heating systems, “there are no emergency or panic situations here. It’s all routine things that need to be done.” He said needed renovations could cost $800,000 to $900,000. Spencer had earlier told the committee the district held $1.2 million in capital outlay funds.

Emig said all buildings, old or new, have maintenance expenses, although older buildings tend to have more expenses.

Speaking about the school board’s proposal of creating one facility with one secure entrance, he said the facility would still require multiple entrances and exits for emergency purposes.

“Neither me or any other architect can design a building that is 100 percent foolproof and keep some idiot fighting his way in and shooting a gun,” Emig said.

He also said the schools had storm shelters and areas that would be safe in most tornadoes, but not all areas were FEMA approved shelters.

“I would feel pretty confident going down to the locker rooms in a tornado,” he said, but noted the designated shelter at the elementary school “won’t hold all of those students.”

After a committee member said he believed that the lower floors of the buildings would withstand an F-4 tornado but not an F-5, Emig said he didn’t disagree.

Emig also noted the expense of building across Sixth Street, which would not only require constructing a new road, but also relocating high pressure gas lines, overhead electric lines, a clay sewer line and a large water main.

While Emig did not offer a cost for any of his plans, a committee member, who said he was familiar with government construction projects, offered a “conservative estimate” based on square footage that the six plans would range from $7 million to $16 million. Emig said he thought those estimates were “in the ballpark.”

Emig asked the group to also consider whether the project should include locker rooms and restrooms with a storm shelter at Jones Park, which had not been included in any of his plans but had been previously considered by the school board.

He said the next steps would include the board contracting with a construction manager to develop cost estimates on the design concepts; if a concept is chosen that closes Sixth Street, permission would be needed to close the street; and with the board approval of the plan, an election would be scheduled.

“And then next thing is for the community to get a bond issue passed,” he said.

Emig warned that for a bond issue to pass “the community’s got to carry the banner … if you are sold that this district needs improved facilities, community members, patrons have to get out in front to carry the torch.”

Spencer asked the committee to consider the amount of a bond issue that would be accepted by district patrons; while no consensus was expressed, several in the group nodded in affirmative when Spencer asked if an amount less than $10 million would be acceptable.

When asked by a committee member about how possible school consolidation would affect the project, Spencer answered, “It depends on how you slice the pie. Consolidation is an issue, but it would be nice to have the facility where they will come. I’d like to host them here.”

Spencer also reminded committee members of their role in providing information to the community, but said that he was not ready “to take this to the general public.”

“This is a focus committee to focus on the points of the project and put together some options to take to the board and ultimately float a bond,” Spencer said.

A committee member told him that he had already taken the issue to the public when he met with county commissioners and Lyndon city council members to inquire about closing Sixth Street. At the beginning of the meeting, Spencer told about giving an interview to a Topeka television station in which he spoke about a bond project proposal that would close Sixth Street.

Spencer also said he would not like to add to the number of people on the focus committee.

“If we continue to expand the size of this committee and bring in new people, we have to backtrack and redo and restart and restart,” he said. “At this point I’m not interested in making this committee any larger.”

Saying “there’s a difference between a public meeting and a meeting that’s open to the public, Spencer said future committee meetings would open to the public “but not a public meeting.”

He also admonished anyone in the room who might be against a bond issue that they are welcome at the meetings, but they should not interfere with the work of the committee.

“If all you want to do is to make sure nothing passes, we’d love to have you but at least let us do our work while you’re here,” Spencer said. “If you’re not open to discussing it, please don’t come back to next meeting.”

He said anyone is welcome to attend the meetings. The next meeting is scheduled for 7 p.m. Dec. 4 at the Lyndon High School library.

See related story here.

See the superintendent’s letter to patrons here.

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