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Weighing wants and needs: School Board, consultants discuss future of district’s facilities

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news Bemidji, 56619
Bemidji Minnesota P.O. Box 455 56619

BEMIDJI -- Education comes first. That was the key message from the Bemidji School Board’s work session Monday as it discussed assessments of the district’s recreational facilities.

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The meeting, which lasted a little more than an hour, focused on the conditions of recreational facilities and suggested possible solutions and cost estimates for repairs.

Yet, as the conversation circled around to the potential for a multi-use indoor field house or a YMCA, board members remained cognizant of their crowded elementary buildings and ever-growing enrollments. They also heard again that the heating and air conditioning system (HVAC) at Bemidji Middle School needs to be addressed, which could cost in the $3 million range. “Accommodating an increase in elementary population … and the HVAC and safety enhancements or replacements, (those) seem to be in my mind the must-have solutions that we have,” board member Ann Long Voelkner said.

Long Voelkner said she would classify potential recreational enhancements as “may-have solutions,” though she acknowledged that they all have benefits for students, businesses and the community as a whole.

District Superintendent Jim Hess did not disagree.

“We talked about the needs and then we talked about the wants,” he said, referencing a Monday afternoon meeting between consultants and district staff. “(The wants are) important, but we absolutely have to cover the needs first and then after that we can address the wants.”

The School Board is moving closer to a decision on whether to ask voters this fall to approve additional funds for Bemidji Area Schools. Consultants hired to look at the district’s facility needs said they expect to present a master plan with recommendations in July.

“If you are looking at an election in the fall, it’s rather imperative that you be making those kinds of decisions rather quickly,” said Jeff Schiltz, a consultant.

School Board member John Pugleasa said he has been hoping the report and the forthcoming recommendations would be a tool the board could use to craft a question for the November ballot.

Schiltz said Bemidji Area Schools could opt to pursue a multi-tiered question for voters, but added that they can be confusing to voters. He suggested the district, if it pursues that route, to take its time to communicate with the voting public so they understand the ballot in its entirety.

Assessments

Consultants, assisted by district staff, completed thorough assessments of all of the district’s indoor and outdoor recreational facilities, from school gymnasiums to athletic fields.

They were all graded on their overall condition, general condition of their furnishings and finishes, mechanical operations, electrical and educational function. Each category received a color to indicate its priority: Green was in good working condition, yellow meant no immediate need was noted but enhancements were suggested, and red meant there were immediate concerns that should be addressed, such as a code violation or pending failure of equipment.

“You can see there’s a lot of green,” Schiltz said. “We’re doing pretty darned good. … From a district perspective, you’re doing very, very well.”

But there were areas of concern, such as the gymnasium at Central Elementary.

“The Central Elementary School gymnasium is one of the few reds that we have and the red happens to be on the educational functionality,” Schiltz said. “They felt we just don’t have big enough space to be able to allow us to run the phy-ed program effectively at that particular school.”

The other district facility to draw a red designation was the district’s aging Nymore Arena.

“Your ice plant is on its last leg,” Schiltz said.

Options

The report includes cost estimates for items recommended for repairs. For items with recommendations that would go beyond simply repairing existing facilities, those will be included in the master plan report, expected next month.

“Where there’s something that is readily replaceable, repairable, etc., we will apply those estimates to those items directly,” said consultant Paul Quirin. “But when it is something that is is an inadequacy item, where we may or may not be able to address it in place, it can’t be addressed as part of that bundle. … It slides into the next bundle, which is the master plan discussion about what items can we continue to improve or modify or add, whether it be an additional or field improvements or elementary space.”

Yet, ideas abound. Troy Hendricks, athletic director for Bemidji High School, was asked to provide his input on what he believes the top need is for recreational facilities.

“No. 1, we need more space,” he said. “It’s a need all the time. There’s a constant need for indoor space.”

That would provide more opportunities for teams to practice closer to school day hours and also provide a location where teams could practice during the spring season, which for the last two years was problematic because of the late winters.

The board discussed the potential for a fieldhouse, with Hendricks voicing support for a facility with an indoor track and flexible space that could be used by a variety of sports teams.

The board also considered the potential of a YMCA, envisioning ways that such a facility could partner with the district.

Schiltz noted a couple of projects that served as additions to an existing school or constructed with school use in mind.

Acknowledging that the district now has two pools, Hendricks said he did not see a new pool as a big priority, but wondered whether a YMCA-like facility could be built with a fieldhouse.

“It would be fantastic if we could work together as a community,” Hendricks said.

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