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What is Mitchell's school board hearing from the public about the new high school project? A lot.

‘We still have to provide decent facilities for our kids.’ Board members look ahead to big decisions

Mitchell High School
Mitchell High School.
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MITCHELL — It’s been a long road to get the Mitchell School District a new high school building.

Now, after 10 years of saving funds, assessing district needs, drawing up specifications, hiring architecture and construction firms and reviewing plans, unforeseen changes to the national economy pumped up the cost of the project by $20 million and has the Mitchell Board of Education weighing its options on the best way to get the work done.

“Everyone is struggling with the same thing,” said Deb Olson, president of the Mitchell Board of Education. “Costs have (increased) and districts are trying to live within the financial means they have.”

A decade of saving funds for a project and a windfall of federal COVID-19 relief money, which districts are required to spend in a set period of time, helped reach the goal of about $42 million that was expected to be enough to cover the costs of new classrooms, gymnasiums and administration areas. The district intentionally avoided attempting a bond issue for the project, as they did not want to force a tax increase on district patrons and the spotty history of success in passing such a measure.

And then that $42 million wasn’t enough.

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To proceed with the plans, the board began looking at alternative designs that would allow the project to be conducted in phases. The latest iteration of those plans would leave out at least part of the athletic facilities that were designed into the new building, which would be located across the street to the west of the current building.

Joe Graves, superintendent for the district, said that regardless of how much of the original design is completed in the first phase, the entire project would be put on priority with the aim of completing it all within no more than five years.

Rising costs force officials to rethink plans

Financial realities have proven a frustrating holdup, both for board members and the constituents they’re hearing from.

“The constituents that I visit with are of the same mind I am. They would like to be doing it all at once, but on the other hand they don’t want to see an increase in their taxes. They want us to live within our means and do what we can and move forward with the next steps as quickly as is economically feasible,” Olson said.

Brittni Flood, who serves as vice president of the board, said district patrons she has spoken with have been mostly understanding of potential delays. But they do know there is a need for new facilities, particularly in the area of athletics, to which she agrees.

“A lot of people see the need for a new high school. A lot of them see the athletic center as the main need, and our athletic center is in ruins. It’s bad, and the academic part is not in great shape, either,” Flood said.

Terry Aslesen, who joined the board as a new member in July, agreed that the athletics portion of the project is in the biggest need of an upgrade. He understands the benefits of doing the project in phases, but if that is the way it will be done, athletics should be part of that first phase.

8-12-22MitchellHighSchoolGym-2.jpg
The current main gymnasium at Mitchell High School.
Adam Thury / Mitchell Republic

“I’ve seen a ton of people in the last 10 days at the baseball tournament, and I heard the same thing over and over: our athletics are pathetic. That has to be a top priority,” Aslesen said. “I really would have liked to have seen it done all in one shot, but if we can’t, I’m adamant that the gymnasiums have to be done in the first shot.”

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If that’s not possible, he said it may be worth switching gears completely and looking at putting the money earmarked for the new school building into rehabilitating the facilities at the current building instead of building completely new.

“I would certainly hope that option would be talked about. Doing a new high school without a new gymnasium does not make sense,” Aslesen said. “And AC is crucial, too. It’s hard to study or perform well when it is too hot.”

Board member Shawn Ruml said he also sees the need for improved facilities, both with academics and athletics, and most of the members of the public he speaks with agree. And like Aslesen, he sees the need for better climate control inside the building.

“The majority of the people I have talked to think we need to do this. The school is not in great shape. (Flood) and I toured the existing school two or three weeks ago, and it was kind of eye-opening in a bad way,” Ruml said. “It was 80 degrees in there with barn fans running. That isn’t good.”

Matt Christiansen, another member of the board, said the change in plans is disappointing, but the district should be able to accomplish its goals using a modular approach. He said, like himself, the public has understandable questions and concerns, but are generally on board with how things are proceeding.

“The pricing and economic strains are frustrating, but I’m hopeful that we’ll be able to move forward with the plan that we have and that our administration can build not only what we need for the educational piece but also the athletic pieces, too,” Christiansen said. “Generally, folks are supportive. Most people have their own ideas on various things, but overall I think support is strong.”

No bond issue the right move?

The district planned the project in such a way that it would not need to seek a bond issue to pay for any of the construction and to keep tax rates for district residents unchanged. Due to the uncertainty of passing a bond issue, which requires a 60% approval vote at the ballot box, board members are generally pleased that the district avoided doing so.

“Mitchell history does not really show a very large acceptance of bond issues. When you’re spending that much money, people are a little more hesitant, which makes it harder. It’s hard to tell how that would go, but a lot of schools have passed bond issues, so it could go either way if it went to a vote. It’s a tough call,” Flood said. “But we still have to provide decent facilities for our kids.”

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Ruml agreed that there’s a level of uncertainty to asking the public to raise their taxes. The plan does have the potential get the district to where it wants to be.

“I think it would have passed, but I don’t know. But if we’re able to do the phases without raising taxes, that’s a huge deal,” Ruml said.

Olson said she remembered the difficulty of getting Gertie Belle Rogers Elementary and L.B. Williams Elementary built. That was partially due to the difficulty of passing bond issues, she said.

From what I’m hearing from taxpayers, they are not wanting their taxes to go up. A bond issue would have required an additional assessment for taxes. My feeling is we’re doing this the best way possible.
Deb Olson, Mitchell Board of Education President

“From what I’m hearing from taxpayers, they are not wanting their taxes to go up," Olson said. "A bond issue would have required an additional assessment for taxes. My feeling is we’re doing this the best way possible.”

Aslesen agreed that bond issues come with no guarantee of passing, but stressed his interest in considering revamping the current building if the athletics portion of the project were not part of a first phase.

“You never know (if a bond issue will pass.) Originally, it looked like the whole project would go for the $42 million available. Unfortunately the costs have escalated so much,” Aslesen said. “But sometimes you have to look at alternatives. (Building in phases) is one, but there are other alternatives that could be explored.”

Christiansen said he thinks a bond issue would have a decent chance of passing, judging by the overall support the project has gotten from district residents that he’s talked to. And the chance remains that bids could come in lower than expected.

“That’s a good question. I think it would pass because I think the community supports our education system here, as far as it’s the right thing to do. There are multiple ways to look at it. We have money that needs to be used, and the district has a pretty good track record of not increasing taxes,” Christiansen said. “I hope things progress and the bids come in and it looks like these add-ons are more feasible than we initially thought.”

Graves said the possibility of trying a bond issue remains an option, but he too is skeptical about its chances for success.

“It’s an option, but it’s an unlikely option. The only thing I have on is the history in Mitchell, where passing them has been very tough,” Graves said.

New Mitchell High School Early Plans_03_00.jpg
An artist's rendering for the initial design of the proposed new Mitchell High School buildling.
Submitted Art

Board members are looking forward to a number of updates on the project. There is discussion about using the current high school kitchen equipment in the new building to save costs. Graves said building specs should be done by November, and then bids for the project are expected to be in before Christmas. If all goes well, groundbreaking could take place in the spring. Those subjects are all expected to receive close scrutiny from the board.

Regardless of how they proceed, the goal remains to deliver improvements that will help enrich the Mitchell High School student experience while doing it in as fiscally responsible manner as possible.

“I think the biggest thing is for people to know that we have not made a final decision, we’re still in the process of figuring out what direction to go in. We want to be able to give those kids the best facility we can with the money we have available,” Flood said.

Erik Kaufman joined the Mitchell Republic in July of 2019 as an education and features reporter. He grew up in Freeman, S.D., graduating from Freeman High School. He graduated from the University of South Dakota in 1999 with a major in English and a minor in computer science. He can be reached at ekaufman@mitchellrepublic.com.
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