The three-phase project that Aitkin Schools undertook in the 2017-18 school year for Aitkin High School had defined borders and a total project cost.
However, due to a variety of factors that include asbestos abatement and a state grant for secure entries, the project waters have become muddied, and the Aitkin School Board is reevaluating where and how to best spend the money it has.
At Monday night’s school board meeting, Scott Sosalla of Architectural Resources reviewed Phase II of the plan, explaining that additional, unplanned costs arose in phase II.
As a result, parts of phase III – originally supposed to address the FACS restaurant and open spaces leading to industrial education – has begun to bleed into phase II.
The board spent more than an hour Monday discussing options for wrapping up the project, which expanded to moving offices and reworking the secure entryway thanks to a $495,000 state of Minnesota secure entry grant.
That grant, however, must be used by 2022 on the secure entry phase of the project. Other work in the project includes work on the commons area of the school, removal of lockers, and work on the FACS restaurant that is open second semester at Aitkin High School.
As Sosalla outlined for the board Monday night, costs for the project have risen since the initial estimates for the work were done.
“My estimates are basically 20 percent higher than they were two years ago,” Sosalla said.
In addition, the district spent $116,000 on asbestos abatement when it was found in the science rooms update in Phase I – and then in other places that were Phases II and III work, with the district chosing to do all the abatement at once to avoid having multiple abatement projects.
Superintendent Dan Stifter, who arrived in July as the district superintendent, said Wednesday that the lines on the various phases have become blurred because of the need for the asbestos abatement, which wasn’t originally budgeted for.
The asbestos was originally found in the floors and the walls of the science area. However, it was also determined to be in the hallways and floor tiles on the first floor, which resulted in the abatement work in the summer of 2019.
As a result of the abatement work and reworking the secure entrances, the district is coming up short on funds to complete everything originally imagined for the project.
“The decisions we made as a board...I think those are good decisions,” said board member Joe Ryan at the meeting Monday. “But we find ourselves in this position now.
“I think we’ve demonstrated we made sound and even economical decisions,” he added.
Other board members agreed, but as the scope of the project has expanded, the costs have as well. Among the other projects being considered is additional work on the industrial education portion of the building.
“We have to make a hard decisions if we want to make this a priority,” Ryan said.
The conversation at the meeting then shifted to alternative methods of funding, including the possibility of completing a community survey and potentially setting up another referendum for Aitkin Schools after two previous referendums have failed since 2015.
However, district business manager Earl Athman did point out that the district could use state funding through the Long-Term Maintenance Fund (LTFM) and capital facilities to address the work.
According to Athman and Emily Adriaens, a fiscal analyst for the Minnesota House of Representatives, the district is allocated $470,000 each year for 2021 and 2022 from the LTFM fund, and could set up a 10-year plan to use that money each year to pay back borrowed funds for the project.
Athman said at the meeting that was a possibility, but it also meant that the district wouldn’t have that money available in an emergency.
“It could strap us down the road,” Athman said at the meeting.
Another option would be using lease levy dollars available, where the district could levy for about an additional $233,000 by levying for $212 per pupil in the district, which state law allows.
The talk then strayed back to the referendum again, with board members saying that discussions need to happen both at the board level and with the community before any decisions are made.
The board agreed Monday night to set up additional work sessions to try to resolve the funding issue – not only for the current project, but for future work as well.