After pause on planning, St. Paul Public Schools drafts new five-year construction plan

St. Paul Public Schools is close to turning the page on a bungled facilities plan whose first 10 major projects took longer and cost hundreds of millions of dollars more than expected.

Following a pause on new construction planning and an external review, administrators will ask the school board next month to approve a new five-year list of construction projects, rebranded as “SPPS Builds.”

This time, the board will get monthly updates on construction progress, and an interactive dashboard that includes costs and timelines will be posted online. The district already has implemented a system of “gate checks,” in which the board must agree before contracts are bid and awarded.

“I really feel confident that we have achieved a great deal from that external review,” said Superintendent Joe Gothard, who has acknowledged paying too little attention to a construction plan he inherited from the previous administration.

The school board on Tuesday looked back on renovations already completed and learned about the planning that’s gone into creating a new construction schedule, which is not yet public.

Board member Zuki Ellis said she “won’t apologize” for the improvements the district has made to several schools, but “we can be better in process, and that absolutely needs to happen going forward.”

Since 2016, the district has been spending $112 million a year on building maintenance and capital improvements, up from around $30 million before then. Numerous projects that were supposed to be underway or complete by now were postponed because the early work has cost far more than first expected.

It was 2014 when the district committed to the major increase in construction, which was meant to improve the look and feel of schools more than add capacity.

John Brodrick, the only current board member in office then, said the board was excited about the prospect of “facilities equity for our inner-city kids,” but their plans “went awry.”

“One of my greatest fears is that the board in 2022 and beyond will have to endure again the questioning and lack of faith that we went through,” said Brodrick, who is retiring at the end of the year.

Steve Marchese, who is leaving the board to take a job out of state later this month, said it will be important to focus on the finished projects to maintain public support for the effort going forward.

“Once folks see the buildings, rarely are they disappointed. They’re usually really glad that we made this investment,” he said.

To pay for the work, the district has been raising property taxes by an extra $30 each year for the average homeowner.

FALLING ENROLLMENT

Officials gave no insight as to which projects they’ll prioritize over the next five years, but it appears there’s lots to do.

A facilities condition assessment found $257 million in deferred maintenance alone that’s rated as being in critical or poor condition, suggesting it should be addressed in the next year or two.

Meanwhile, the district has too many elementary schools for a declining student population. St. Paul was losing over a thousand students each year even before the pandemic, which has only accelerated that trend.

Online schooling figures to take even more students, even if the St. Paul district is fully open again by fall.

The district has identified 12 schools that — if operating as usual outside of a pandemic — still would be less than 70 percent full. They are:

  • Galtier and Riverview elementary schools, whose enrollment is trending up.
  • Creative Arts Secondary and Hamline, Highwood Hills and Maxfield elementary schools, where enrollment is flat.
  • Parkway Middle and the elementary Adams Spanish Immersion, Cherokee Heights, Dayton’s Bluff, Obama and L’Etoile du Nord French Immersion, whose enrollment is falling.

Board member Ellis encouraged her colleagues to keep those trends in mind as they make construction plans.

“We are currently in the midst of a pandemic, and the decisions we make going forward may be for less students,” she said.

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