St. Paul district to spend $81M on two school remodels, postpone other work

St. Paul Public Schools is moving forward with two costly construction projects and further delaying several others following an external review of its facilities work.

District leaders on Tuesday unveiled a new five-year construction schedule that features renovations estimated at $49.8 million for Ramsey Middle School and $31 million for Jie Ming Mandarin Immersion Academy.

The district’s previous facilities plan, approved by the school board in October 2018, estimated the Ramsey project would cost $23.5 million and Jie Ming $6.5 million.

Board member John Brodrick said such dramatic cost increases make him “uneasy” about the district’s ability to finance other important construction work.

“We’re going to have a lot of disappointed people across the district,” he said.

Still, most board members said Tuesday they’ll be ready to approve the five-year plan by their next meeting, March 23.

BAD ESTIMATES

The district in 2016 increased its yearly construction budget from $30 million to $112 million in order to improve the look and feel of its aging schools. But the renovations and mechanical system upgrades have cost far more than first expected, forcing the district to postpone several projects.

Following a Pioneer Press report, Superintendent Joe Gothard in 2019 halted planning on new projects and hired a consultant to determine what went wrong and recommend changes to their planning and construction processes.

One outcome was to start over with a new five-year building plan, which they’ve re-branded as SPPS Builds.

Unlike the 2018 plan, this one does not have cost estimates for every future project throughout the district. Instead, estimates will be released as each project goes before the board to advance from concept to the design phase.

The new schedule comes with no significant reordering of the capital projects. However, several are being postponed again, partly because the district is engaged in strategic planning around how it wants to use its buildings in the future.

Gothard said he’s confident that plans for Jie Ming and Ramsey will hold up.

JIE MING

Formerly Homecroft Elementary, Jie Ming underwent a minor renovation in 2018 when the immersion program moved in, having outgrown its shared space at Hamline Elementary. The second phase of renovation includes a new gym floor and mechanical system upgrades.

More importantly, it’ll get additional classrooms to accommodate a popular program that draws more open-enrolled students than any other elementary. The school also will get a new cafeteria and its own kitchen so that meals won’t have to be delivered each day.

Pending further board approval, construction should begin next year and wrap up in 2024.

It would have cost an estimated $54.7 million to build a new language immersion school in place of the 1921 building.

RAMSEY MIDDLE

Ramsey, built in 1924, is in the worst condition of any school in the district, according to a facilities condition assessment.

From early 2023 through late 2025, it’s slated to get major drainage work to remedy water problems, as well as new stairs, a parking lot, fencing, lights and extensive mechanical system improvements, including a new HVAC system.

Inside, the renovation will bring a new entrance and administrative offices, new restrooms and lockers, new gym floor and reconfigured classrooms to accommodate the district’s recent move from junior high schools to a middle school model, which groups students together by grade level.

The $49.8 million estimated cost is 69 percent of the $72 million it could take to build a new middle school. The Minnesota Department of Education says school districts should “seriously consider” building a new school if renovation costs exceed 60 percent.

However, the district decided on a renovation because there’s not enough room on the site to build new without first demolishing the current school, and the nearest available land is about a mile away.

The district also has concerns about the historic value of the school and how government rules on historic preservation might interfere with any tear-down plans.

POSTPONED WORK

Other upcoming projects still are in flux.

The district is reserving $30 million for undetermined projects to come out of its strategic planning. Officials expect to bring some recommendations to the board this fall. They could include closing a school, adding classrooms to a popular program or remodeling a building for a new purpose, such as a preschool hub.

Those on the five-year schedule are:

  • Bruce Vento Elementary, which in 2016 was slated for a major renovation in 2020. It was delayed because of high costs at other schools as well as a high estimate at Vento. District leaders have considered building a new school instead at the same location, but the latest plan calls for just a boiler replacement in 2023.
  • Cherokee Heights Elementary, also first scheduled for 2020, now is due to break ground in 2025 on a substantial classroom renovation, new cafeteria and kitchen and mechanical upgrades. The district hasn’t publicly updated the project’s cost since issuing a $17 million estimate in 2018.
  • Likewise, Farnsworth Aerospace Lower Campus was postponed from 2020 to 2026. It’s due for a three-story addition, two-story library, classroom renovation and gym addition. The last cost estimate, from 2018, was $26 million.
  • The Highland Park complex initially was scheduled for mechanical upgrades at the high school in 2018 and a middle school remodel in 2019. Now, both ends of the school are due up in 2024. The latest cost estimate, from 2018, was $34.5 million.
  • Obama Elementary, too, was postponed from 2020 to 2025. It’s up for the renovation of its classroom, gym, cafeteria, library, administrative offices and restrooms, as well as a new entry and mechanical upgrades. The 2018 cost estimate was $36.4 million.

SMALLER PROJECTS

The district also has plans for back-end improvements at several schools: a new roof for Bridge View; auditorium curtains, lights and seats at some secondary schools; and HVAC replacements at Farnsworth Upper Campus and The Heights and Wellstone elementary schools.

Athletic improvements include new artificial turf for Highland, Humboldt, Johnson and Harding high schools, a tennis court resurfacing at Como Senior High, dugouts at Como and Highland, and pole lights at Humboldt and Johnson.

Add in smaller projects throughout the district and you get 40 sites over five years that should get over $500,000 in improvements.

Overall, the five-year plan should cost around $105 million a year, down slightly from the first few years of the campaign.

Compared to the old Facilities Master Plans, the new schedule uses “more sophisticated” processes for estimating costs, Facilities Director Tom Parent said. This one builds in contingencies and inflation, as well as furniture, fixtures and equipment.

He and Chief Operations Officer Jackie Turner discouraged any cost comparisons to the previous plans.

“We consider that to be done and gone,” Turner said. “We are under a whole new program.”

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