Sioux County School Board Votes To Build New Grade School

By Kerri Rempp

After more than four hours of meetings with the public in two days, the Sioux County School Board voted unanimously Tuesday to secure financing to construct a new elementary school.

The timeline calls for the district to break ground in 2022 and have the facility open for classes in the fall of 2023. The conceptual drawings as presented come with an estimated price tag of $4.65 million dollars.

The district would be able to finance construction as presented without putting forward a bond issue. Instead, the district’s 59-cent levy would increase to 73 cents for seven years to fund construction.

“Our levy would be raised for seven years. After the project is paid off, the levy would go back down,” Superintendent Dr. Brett Gies explained.

The district’s low levy makes it possible to pay for construction that way, said Andy Forney, the vice president and public finance banker for DA Davidson, and it makes sense to lock in financing now before interest rates go up.

While the board presented conceptual drawings and a preliminary plan that includes six classrooms, support rooms and an elementary cafeteria/physical education facility that could double as a high school practice gym, the final design has not yet been determined.

The Sioux County district will now work to secure financing at a projected interest rate of 0.85-1.5% and begin detailed work with the architect to finalize construction plans to take to bid.

The district began discussing its options in June, when the board rejected a proposal to purchase a small cabin for placement at the elementary school to solve ongoing space issues in the building. At the time, the board expressed concerns about the handicapped-accessibility of the Harrison Elementary School.

With the knowledge that a wheelchair-bound student is expected to enroll in 2023, the board in June decided to look at solutions that would solve both the space issues and the ADA compliance issues.

After working with an architect and a finance firm, a steering committee of board members presented its preferred option of constructing a new school next to the Sioux County High School to the public Dec. 27-28.

The Harrison Elementary School is 85-years-old and spans four levels with narrow staircases that make installing a chair lift impossible. Other challenges, such as too narrow doorways and restrooms, also would have to be addressed.

“There are huge ticket items and smaller ticket items to make it (ADA) accessible,” said Dr. Gies.

The audience both nights numbered around 40, with some attending both sessions and others making an appearance at just one of the public meetings. While most in attendance agreed that the district needs to address the ADA issues with new construction, much of the debate was over whether or not to include a full gym in that construction.

The architect estimate puts the cost of construction for classrooms and support rooms at $2.9-3.5 million, but that does not address the need for space for elementary P.E., a lunch room and indoor recess during times of bad weather. Using the high school gym throughout the day for those purposes would be a logistical challenge on many days, staff said, and parents of younger elementary students were concerned about having their students in the same building with high school kids.

Adding the elementary PE/Cafeteria and holding some high school practices there addresses those concerns and provides the opportunity to eliminate late practices for high school students and facilitate more efficient hosting of tournaments, Dr. Gies said.

The conceptual drawings also have the placement of the multipurpose room in such a way to serve as a buffer between elementary and high school students, and it can be closed off from both buildings so community members could use it in the evenings or on weekends for meetings and events or to exercise.

“You’ve got to build the gym. Our most valuable resource is time. Let’s use our kids’ time wisely,” said patron Scott Schaefer. “I think all of you have done a good job. I think you should all vote yes.”

Travis Krein agreed.

“We voted for the people at the table. We had an opportunity at election time to elect people who will vote in our best interests. Everybody there is doing the best they can,” he said Monday.

Krein returned Tuesday and again urged the board to move forward.

“This is a long-term decision for this community, and I don’t think there’s anyone here that can’t afford a higher tax for seven years to invest in our kids and grandkids,” he said.

If the price of construction goes up to $4.8 million, the impact on taxpayers would be an extra $143.63 per year on $100,000 of valuation. A construction cost below that number, would lower the tax impact accordingly. Nebraska has more than 280 school districts, and a proposed levy of 73 cents would still rank Sioux County as one of the 50 lowest-taxing districts in the state based on current levies.

Those who voiced opposition to the construction of a gym as part of the project were concerned about tax implications on their ranches, especially in times of low cattle prices or drought. What would calf prices have to be for seven years to allow ranchers to pay for the $4.65 million project, patron Spike Jordan asked, adding that he believes the district must address the issues and avoid a lawsuit.

Father and son John and Jory Gieser also urged the board to delay action. While they agree the district must do something, they did not see the need for another gym, especially if student numbers continue to drop. Jory Gieser asked the board repeatedly to delay the vote to secure financing until the district had a more final construction plan with actual numbers rather than an estimate.

That action, however, would risk missing out on low interest rates and would cost the district in the long run, said board member Joleen Falkenburg. Board members Dave Howell and Shon Whetham noted that the inclusion of a gym – or its size – can be changed as the district prepares bid specs.

Other options the school board reviewed and rejected included:

  • The construction of an elevator at the current elementary school. Adding an elevator to the north side of the building still presented problems in how to navigate through the building and did not address other access issues such as the restrooms or solve the ongoing space issues.
  • The construction of a separate modular classroom, in which the class that includes a disabled elementary student would be assigned for their entire K-8 career, does not meet the full intent of ADA law because it does not provide full access in the least restrictive environment.
  • Construction of a new elementary school on the same lot as the current school was proposed but did not address additional space issues the district contends with at the school.
  • Constructing a single classroom at the high school led to the same concerns about not meeting the full intent of the law in the least restrictive environment.
  • The board also explored transporting disabled students to other neighboring districts, but were denied those opportunities as districts have reached capacity in their special education programs.

“Every option has been looked at aggressively,” said Falkenburg.

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