Replacing South emerges as top option

The costs figures for the option of remodelling and adding onto Princeton’s overcrowded South Elementary were scheduled to be examined further this week because of public feedback during the Dec. 10 community-input meeting on the district’s facilities needs.

The community committee that had been drafting various options recently for dealing with the district’s facilities needs was no longer considering the remodeling and addition idea for South by the time the Dec. 10 input meeting began. The options committee was focusing instead on likely recommending to a school board committee a proposal to build a new school to replace South Elementary.

Toward the end of the two-hour public meeting, which was facilitated by Wold Architects and engineer architect Vaughn Dierks, two people in the audience – Barry Ramage and Paul Vollkommer – questioned the estimated $21.8 million cost to remodel and add onto South Elementary. They said they wanted more of a breakdown to show how the $21.8 million figure was calculated.

Dierks pointed out that the $21.8 million would include more than a South Elementary remodeling and addition project. It also would also include doing work on other school buildings in the Princeton district to make them more secure and have modern technology infrastructure.

The original, main part of South Elementary was built in 1954. About two decades ago a kindergarten structure was added.

But school officials say the elementary building lacks  space for its 745 students. The entire second grade is housed in a rented 14-room portable building. The students and staff who use the portable structure walk outside to go between the portable and main building.

Wold and the ICS consulting firm have estimated that it would cost nearly $9 million just to make needed repairs at South Elementary. That figure would not add onto the building to eliminate the need for the portables, nor build a bigger gym.

Dierks also noted that a remodeling and addition project at South would not make the present hallways larger nor would it enlarge the existing classrooms. While the current classrooms are still allowable for their size, they are smaller than the state guidelines, Dierks noted.

Direction of committee

What the options committee had honed in on for South Elementary, after it and other community committees had studied the needs of the district’s facilities, was to build a replacement elementary at a site to be determined.

One site committee members considered is adjacent to the North Elementary on Seventh Avenue North and 12th Street; the other site  considered is on a 60-acre parcel of district-owned land. The latter is located less than a half mile north of the middle school. The middle school is located a few blocks east of North Elementary.

One requirement, if the district were to build a new school on the 60-acre site, is that a new or newly constructed road would have to be built to get to the site, plus city sewer and water mains would have to extended to it.

Dierks said that a survey done by a consulting company for the district found that some respondents favor a location south of the city limits in Baldwin Township if a new school were built. But there was no large number of respondents saying either way where a new school should go, Dierks said.

“This is not an easy problem,” Dierks said to the crowd of a little more than a hundred attending the meeting about how to decide what to do about the school facilities. One of the options that the committees looked at was to do nothing. That option was eliminated early in the decision making because renting portables for education is not popular.

Someone in the audience mentioned the fact that a part of the district’s taxpayers don’t have children in any of the schools, and Dierks responded that helping pay for school facilities is a community investment.

Local landscape architect Dave Patten said the process this time to find a solution for the district’s facilities problem has involved a lot of work and is far more involved than the process about eight years ago. At that time, the school board ran a referendum asking for $89 million and the public didn’t get much information on the proposal, Patten said.

Estimated costs

Dierks presented figures on a projection screen showing estimated costs for the different options including the $21.8 million to remodel and add onto South Elementary. The estimated cost for building a new building for kindergarten through second grade on the district-owned land near the middle school was $24.6 million. The estimate for building it adjacent to North Elementary was $24.1 million.

The option of building a new addition for grades three through five at North Elementary at a cost of $24.1 million, with the idea of putting kindergarten through second-grade students into North Elementary, was discarded. The reason given was because of the project just completed about two years ago that upgraded North Elementary.

The criteria committees had also studied needs at the high school and found a need for two basketball court size gym spaces to be added. Dierks said that it was agreed by committee members based on a survey that any proposal for both South Elementary and some improvements at the high school should have a total price tag of under $30 million.

Dierks said the purpose of the presentation was to gather public input and he was glad to get feedback.

Dierks, though, defended the estimated $21.8 million cost of a South Elementary remodeling and addition project when Vollkommer and Ramage said they weren’t satisfied with the figure. The two explained that they thought it shouldn’t cost that much to do that work, while Dierks said he had confidence in the professionals who came up with the cost estimate.

Dierks also reminded everyone again that the estimate also includes technology and security upgrades where needed across the district.

Dierks indicated during the meeting that there would be another follow-up public meeting in the process to come up with a referendum proposal.