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'Seriously over budget:' Initial plans for new Mitchell High School come roughly $20 million high

Mitchell Board of Education looks to pare down plans to better fit budget

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Architect Robin Miller of Schemmer out of Omaha, Nebraska describes the potential layout of the new Mitchell High School that was shown during the school board meeting on Monday, June 13, 2022 at the Mitchell Career & Technical Education Academy.
Adam Thury / Mitchell Republic
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MITCHELL — The initial plans for the proposed new Mitchell High School building are in, and the cost is higher than expected.

“We’re seriously over budget,” said Joe Graves, superintendent for the Mitchell School District. “We have to go back to the table and figure out how to get this under budget. We have to figure out how to eliminate $20 million.”

The comments came during a presentation from architects and building contractors at the Monday, June 13 meeting of the Mitchell Board of Education. The cost estimated with the project came in at $62,175,562, well above the roughly $42 million budget the district has set aside for the project, which would replace the current district high school building on Capital Street.

Representatives from Puetz Design and Build and Schemmer, an architectural firm out of Omaha, Nebraska, were on hand to outline the first look at plans for the building, which is being designed to replace the current building that was built in 1962. The district has long been planning to replace the building, citing its age, general wear and its mid-century design.

That set the district on a path to put money away over the course of several years in an effort to build a fund that would go toward the work. An influx of federal dollars designated for COVID-19 relief that can be used for such projects helped accelerate the process, and Monday night the board got its first look at some proposed plans.

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The plans drawn up by Schemmer show a new building on the west side of Capital Street attached to the current Mitchell Career & Technical Education Academy building. They show a pair of two-story classroom wings extending north, as well as a wing featuring gymnasiums, classrooms for physical education, equipment storage and practice courts.

Mark Puetz, president and CEO of Puetz Design and Build, said recent economic inflation and the goal of fitting in all the requested needs of the district factored into the increased estimated price of the design. It’s a problem facing construction projects around the country, and the new Mitchell High School project is no different.

“Since last November, there has been about a 20% to 25% cost increase on projects across the board,” Puetz said.

Robin Miller, an architect with Schemmer, who is heading up the design portion of the project, said they did the best they could in getting the wants and needs of the district into the blueprints, but he said the next portion of the process will be to develop alternate plans of a lower cost for the board to review.

Those will give the district options for staying within its target budget, he said.

“We chiseled out the parts of the school you need, but what we want is to get you to an entry bid you can afford now,” Miller said.

The pair took questions from members of the audience as well as board members, who were also getting their first up-close look at the plans. A number of questions were raised, including the level of safety in the fact that students would likely have to cross Capital Street in order to get from parking lots to the high school and the type of security the new building would have to keep students and staff safe.

Graves said in an ideal world, they would close Capital Street to unite the two halves of the high school campus, but he said previous attempts to make that happen were dismissed due to the amount of traffic that utilizes Capital Street on a daily basis. Graves said he had approached the city in the past about the option and found little support due to the fact that the street is a major thoroughfare for traffic traveling north and south through the community.
“That is a city thing. We requested that we close Capital Street when we opened (the Mitchell Career & Technical Education Academy), and there is absolutely no support,” Graves said.

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The design of the new building has a raised crosswalk, similar to what is located in front of the Corn Palace in downtown Mitchell, and should slow traffic practically to a halt. Most students would be crossing the street in the morning before school starts and after school is let out for the day.

Some questions asked were about security features and if they were built into the initial $62 million price tag. Miller said the wiring and infrastructure to allow for security cameras is all included in the design, though the specific camera equipment is not.

Graves said the camera system currently being used in the high school is practically brand new and could be transferred to the new building relatively easily.

The building is designed to accommodate a wide variety of security features, but the specifics of what actually goes into the building will be something looked at in upcoming conversations with the board and school security committee.

The next phase of the planning will be to review alternate plans from Schemmer that will help trim the cost down to the necessary levels. Several different alternates are expected that should give the board some options to work with.

Brittni Flood, a member of the board of education, told the Mitchell Republic after the meeting that she was glad to get a first look at the plans, but there was still more work to do. She planned specifically to keep an eye on security and technology features, both of which she said the district cannot afford to skimp on.

“I think the biggest thing we’ve seen the project as a whole and be able to look at that and now see what things we can take off or add eventually or do it in phases and have those options is the biggest thing to see where we can make it work with the budget that we do have,” Flood said. “My main issue in cutbacks is that we don’t have to make the cutbacks with security and technology that you have to have that is continuously growing.”

Deb Olson, president of the Mitchell Board of Education, said there will be some tough decisions to make down the road, including the possibility of leaving the current high school building up instead of demolishing it in the event the district may need to lean back on some of those facilities until the full scale of the new high school can be completed.

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She was also pleased that going forward, a member of the board would be appointed to the design committee. That should help facilitate good information quickly to the board, she said.

“My thoughts are that I have questions, obviously. One of the questions if we cut back on some things would it mean we’d still have to keep the current high school standing. Obviously I’m looking forward to the fact there will be a board member on the design committee now, so that we can be informed about what’s going to happen,” Olson said. “I also think the economy is not going to continue to inflate as it has been, I’m hopeful some of that inflation will be under control before we actually have to let this for bids. Lumber is going down, how long will it be before other things go down?”

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Concept art design of the new Mitchell High School that was shown during the school board meeting on Monday, June 13, 2022 at the Mitchell Career & Technical Education Academy.
Adam Thury / Mitchell Republic

Miller said regardless of what cutbacks are approved, the building must still be built to standards and code.

Should plans move at a good pace, Puetz said the project could go to bid before the end of the year, with construction ideally beginning in the spring of 2023 as soon as workers can work with the thawed ground.

Olson said there was a lot to like about the plans seen Monday night, but the next round of review for the alternate plans will go a long way to clearing up the picture of the new high school building. She doesn’t expect making the cuts or adjustments to cut $20 million off the cost to be easy, but she said she felt it could be done.

“I’m hopeful. I’m hopeful,” Olson said.

Meal prices

The board approved leaving student meal prices unchanged from the 2021-22 school season for the upcoming 2022-23 school season but raising the price for adult meals.

The proposed increase would increase adult breakfast from $2.50 to $3 and lunch from $4 to $5. Student reduced meals would remain unchanged at $0.30 for breakfast and $0.40 for lunch. For regular elementary price meals, prices will remain at $1.85 for breakfast and $2.80 for lunch. Middle school and high school meal prices will remain at $2 for breakfast and $3 for lunch.

The increase for adult meals stems from federal regulations that state that all adult meal costs must not fall below actual costs.

“Given a number of efficiencies that have now been built into the food service program along with increased participation rates, we should be able to hold the student meal prices unchanged without adversely affecting the fiscal health of the program and account balance. We also feel that holding the line on price increases will help maintain our solid participation rates,” Graves wrote in his meeting notes.

The board approved the increase by unanimous vote.

Personnel

The board approved following personnel moves:

  • The new classified hires of Alfred DeLange, maintenance mowing, $15 per hour, 3-4 hours daily, effective Aug. 23, 2022; Samantha Suarez, data support specialist for food service, $18.25 per hour, effective May 25, 2022 and Laura Baus, special education paraeducator, 7 hours daily, Aug. 17, 2022.
  • The 6th class assignments of Melissa Vatter-Miller, 1 semester; Ken VanOverschelde, 1 semester; Kaitlyn Huska, 1 semester; Steven Morgan, 1 semester; Gretchen Smith, 2 semesters; Nancy Leach, 2 semesters; Curt Smith, 2 semesters; Christina Siemsen, 2 semesters; Denis Hoffman, 2 semesters and Bruce Mastel, 2 semesters. All assignments are effective for the 2022-23 school year.
  • The resignation/retirement of Debbie Garton, administrative assistant, effective June 3, 2022.
  • The Mitchell Technical College resignation of Jenna Vavra, radiologic technology instructor, effective July 31, 2022.

Other business

Also at the meeting, the board:

  • Canvassed and certified the June 7, 2022 Mitchell Board of Education results.
  • Approved prime vendor bid for food service purchases.
  • Heard board member reports.
  • Heard the superintendent report.
  • Heard public commentary.

The next meeting of the Mitchell Board of Education is scheduled for 5 p.m. Monday, June 27 at the Mitchell Career & Technical Education Academy.

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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