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GF schools look at $13 million in possible theater projects

The Grand Forks School Board's facilities committee is considering three projects that would upgrade the high schools' music and theater arts spaces -- but first, members would like to get an idea of how the district could pay for the $13 million...

The Grand Forks School Board's facilities committee is considering three projects that would upgrade the high schools' music and theater arts spaces -- but first, members would like to get an idea of how the district could pay for the $13 million in projects.

The committee first discussed a music and theater arts needs assessment Oct. 27, when Minneapolis-based consulting firm Perkins+Will recommended tackling its top two priorities: Building a new $8.1 million, 750-seat theater at Red River High School, and remodeling and expanding Central High School's auditorium for about $2.5 million.

Fairness

At a Wednesday meeting, some members brought up the possible lack of fairness in spending more at Red River. School Board President Eric Lunn said doing only the top two priorities would result in "no parity" between the schools, and board member Bill Palmiscno agreed.

Palmiscno recommended the district should also consider the third priority -- building a $2.4 million attachment onto Central that could house an orchestra rehearsal room, an art lab and a "blackbox theater," which could be used for small drama performances and also used as classroom space during the day.

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But he said the new space could instead be used as a wrestling room, which was recently lost when a new fitness center was built.

Remodeling Central's auditorium would be the easiest project because it wouldn't affect the rest of the school, and construction would take less than a year.

Red River's new theater would displace the football practice field for about two years. One way of getting by this would be installing artificial turf on Cushman Field so it could be used for practice and games, but that would cost $1 million.

School Board member Linda Jenkins said other departments in the schools don't have enough classrooms, and said spending all this money on just the music and theater arts programs could seem unfair.

"I wonder what other areas need space," she said.

Superintendent Larry Nybladh said an organizational study will analyze department space, but probably won't be completed until April. If the district waits for the results before starting theater projects, it would likely push construction back to 2011, he said.

Next steps

Before any projects can start, committee members want to look at funding options and also how the projects might affect future development in the schools.

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Bill Hutchison, the district's business manager, said there are some necessary facility upgrades at the 18 schools, including nearly $700,000 in electrical, mechanical and equipment purchases needed in the next three to five years.

The schools need new air handling units at an estimated cost of $1.2 million. If the district decided to also improve air conditioning at the schools, the project would then cost about $6.3 million.

But it's hard to know everything the district will need until a comprehensive facilities plan can be completed. Nybladh said the last plan was made in 1997, and the district is trying to create a new one within a year.

Hutchison was asked to come up with funding options to pay for the top three priority projects, but there are already a few options.

Under state law, the district can levy up to 20 mills for a building fund. Grand Forks' building levy is at 11.23 mills, which means about $1.2 million is generated each year that could go to the projects.

And while the district could raise the levy to take in more money, putting most of the fund toward this work would also tie up a reserve that could be needed for more facility work in the coming years.

The district also has about $1.1 million of unallocated stimulus money, so some of the costs could be covered by this, and about $25 million in state stimulus money could provide a low-interest bond for part of the project.

The committee will meet in early December to discuss funding options.

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Johnson covers local K-12 education. Reach him at (701) 780-1105; (800) 477-6572, ext. 105; or send e-mail to rjohnson@gfherald.com .

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