Vision of a new high school becoming reality for Mitchell School District

New school would replace current structure built in 1962

The Mitchell School District is developing a plan to construct a new high school building. The proposed building would replace the current high school building that was built in 1962. Joe Graves, superintendent for the district, said he expected the Mitchell Board of Education to get a look at proposals from architects in the upcoming months. (Matt Gade / Republic)
Matt Gade

Mitchell High School is a busy place.

Among Mitchell School District buildings, which also includes a middle school and three elementary schools, the high school is the busiest and most active with students, teachers and staff coming and going from early in the morning to late at night for classes, activities, practices and other school functions.

“At the elementary schools, it’s busy from maybe 7 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., and that’s it,” Joe Graves, superintendent for the Mitchell School District, told the Mitchell Republic recently. “With the high school, it can start before 6 a.m. and can go as late as 10 p.m. It’s just constant. It’s just use, use, use.”

That constant use can cause wear and tear, and after nearly 60 years of service to the public education system in Mitchell, the current Mitchell High School building is finally ready for retirement, Graves said, and district officials and the Mitchell Board of Education are deep into planning a new high school building that will serve the educational needs of students for decades to come.

The district has been anticipating a new building going as far back as a decade, Graves said. Its heating and cooling system is outdated and on its last legs, the layout and design are from a different era of educational thought and the structure is beginning to show its age after six decades of hosting classes.


“Frankly, the overall condition is tough,” Graves said.

Funding and cost

The plan for a new building has proceeded in steps. When it was time to begin looking at how to make a new high school a reality, the district began putting away money for the project. The district has built a fund over several years to offset some of the impact of such a high-ticket item.

Steve Culhane, business manager for the Mitchell School District, said about $5,762,000 has been budgeted for the new building so far, with a goal of adding roughly $1 million per year in an effort to grow the fund. That will continue through the upcoming design phase of the project.

“The intent is to continue to build that up over the next several years, so I’m assuming conservatively that it will be in the $7 million to $8 million range when we really get going and use that as part of the total package for the new school,” Culhane said.

The current Mitchell High School building, built in 1962, is showing signs of its age and is need of replacement, according to school officials. District officials are exploring building a new high school building in the near future. (Matt Gade / Republic)
Matt Gade

The exact cost of a new building remains unknown. That will come down to what the architecture firms planning to submit proposals come up with for a design and what the board of education approves. Graves said estimates on the cost of a new building have ranged as high as $40 million, but the district has undertaken several projects in the last several years that have dropped that estimate closer to $25 million.

The construction of the Performing Arts Center allowed the district to move the majority of its fine arts space to that location, and the purchase of the old Mitchell Technical College campus allowed the district to move its CTE programs to that location. That means those spaces, which Graves said take up a lot of room, won’t have to be built into the new high school building.


“CTE is one of those areas that is very square-foot intensive, and we got all that done,” Graves said. “We got Second Chance High moved, we got the CTE moved and all of the fine arts out of the way. The auditorium is out of the way. When you’re looking at the present cost of the high school, we were looking at about $40 million, and we figure we got that down to $25 million. If we hadn’t done all those things, we’d be looking at a very large bond issue.”

The district has looked at enrollment numbers, and expects that the student body size will likely remain steady in the 800 to 900 range, with no surges in enrollment expected down the road. Along with less need for space-needy programs now located in other buildings, it is possible the square footage of the new building will be less than the old.

The district is also structuring its plan to have a minimum impact on local taxpayers, Graves said.

“We started to pay down our debt obligations. We’re trying to get our debt reduced, because that will allow us to borrow against future capital outlay receipts. So our hope is that we will be able to build this building without a bond issue. That’s what we’re trying to do for the taxpayers.”

— Joe Graves, Mitchell School District Superintendent

“We started to pay down our debt obligations. We’re trying to get our debt reduced, because that will allow us to borrow against future capital outlay receipts. So our hope is that we will be able to build this building without a bond issue. That’s what we’re trying to do for the taxpayers,” Graves said.

Cost is an important aspect of the process, said Deb Olson, president of the Mitchell Board of Education. Having a plan in place to minimize the impact of cost of construction for taxpayers is a big plus when it comes to making a project like this a reality.

“I think back historically when I was in my first few years with the district. Within my first five years we were working to pass a bond issue to build L.B. Williams and Gertie Belle Rogers (elementary schools), and it was so difficult to pass them at that time. I think patrons would be relieved to know that would not be asked of them (in this case),” Olson said.


Another major aspect of the project will be exactly where to put the new building.


Graves said the district is in a fortunate position, owning a good portion of land surrounding the current high school building, including a sizable parking lot and practice field adjacent to the building, where a new building could conceivably be erected.

“We have a lot of land there. What we’re going to be able to do when we hire an architect is ask them about how to use this space,” Graves said.

He said architectural firms have visited the campus area to give them ideas for their design proposals, and he’s interested to see what they come up with. When the PAC was built, Graves said he was sure the designers would propose putting it on the location of the current high school parking lot, but they came back with an idea to build it on school property located at the end of Burr Street, where it was eventually built.

“I was sure it was going to go in the south parking lot, but the architect said that it belonged at the end of Burr,” Graves said. “We have never considered using (that land) in that manner, but that’s why you hire those guys.”

The high school, PAC, MCTEA and Joe Quintal Field all give the high school complex on Capitol Street a campus-style feel, something he said the district would like to preserve. Mitchell High School graduates learn the process of changing buildings for different classes, something many high schoolers don’t necessarily experience, which helps in their transition to post-secondary schooling.

Locations for a planned new Mitchell High School building include property near and adjacent to the current high school building, located on Capitol Street. (Matt Gade / Republic)
Matt Gade

One location it will not be built is on the site of the current high school building, which is expected to be used right through completion of the new building. That way, there will be a minimum of disruption of classes and activities during the year and staffers can move into the new building over summer break.


“We have enough land that we can build while the old one stays standing,” Graves said.

Though it has yet to be decided, the old building will likely be demolished once the move to the new building is complete, Graves said.


Graves stresses that the district is not in any particular hurry to break ground. The process has been underway for several years and he said the district wants to take its time, study the necessary information and make solid decisions.

He expects the board of education will get a look at some proposals from architects in the upcoming months. From there they will transition to hiring an architect, letting bids and hiring a contractor to handle construction.

“We have to start with proposals from the architects, and then the next step is to hire one and then begin planning. After that we'll hire someone to manage the construction, and then we will probably be putting out bids for a new building maybe as early as late winter. It would be great if we could do that in February. But we have to do the design well. We cannot rush that, and frankly, there is no big rush,” Graves said.

Graves said teachers and staff will be brought into the design phase process to give guidance on what they think would be improvements, what would work for them and what wouldn’t. That will be a crucial element in designing a building that will not just be used for the remainder of the decade, but for decades to come.

“With as many changes that have occurred, the buildings have to evolve with the changes that occur in our lives, in technology. A building has to meet those needs. We need to look at the future and ask what will we need?”

— Deb Olson, Mitchell Board of Education President

“There are challenges in how to build buildings that are most useful in the future. How do we take the current issues and build a building that will serve us well 50 years from now?” Graves said.


Olson said education does not stop, and school facilities should be able to accommodate the needs of its students as education evolves. A new high school building will help the Mitchell School District fulfill that obligation, both in the short and long term.

“With as many changes that have occurred, the buildings have to evolve with the changes that occur in our lives, in technology. A building has to meet those needs. We need to look at the future and ask what will we need?” Olson said.

Graves said he expects there to be hiccups along the way, as is expected with any project of this scale. But once completed, the benefits will be clear. The district will have a new facility to host its high school students for decades to come.

“I’m just excited about having a new facility for the students, employees and teachers. It’s invigorating,” Graves said. “Anytime you have a building as old as this it’s going to have problems you can’t surmount anymore. Most of those problems should go away. We’ll have a bright new building and it should be an exciting and new development for the high school.”

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
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