An issue of space, safety [UPDATED]Published 10:47am Tuesday, March 5, 2013 Updated 10:49am Tuesday, March 5, 2013
A map should be handed out at the entrance to Pelican Rapids High School. The hallways are a maze, with stairways connecting 11 different levels in the school. And while clean and maintained, the school hasn’t had a major renovation since 1986.
The school board is looking to rectify that, askingfor $18.5 million for major renovations in a bond referendum on March 12. But it’s not just worn facilities at issue. There are serious safety concerns as well as ADA issues.
“Parents will be across the street dropping off their kids, and they’ll dart across the street,” said school superintendent Deb Wanek. “Kids think that the cars will watch out for them, but they don’t.”
Wanek says she sees students crossing Highway 59 every day from her office, and recounts an accident when a girl sustained serious injuries in 2008 when hit by a car. Part of the issue is that the main parking lot for the school is hundreds of yards away. To drop off kids close to the school entrance means crossing the busy highway, which is traveled by 8,000 cars a day.
The schools renovation plan will include a safe drop off lane in front of school, and address other safety and modernization measures.
Since the school has been operating under its current conditions for over 25 years, Wanek was asked why now.
“We had a referendum in 2005 for $33 million for a new school building that was soundly defeated. We got the message that a new building was not what the community wanted, but that there were still needs to be addressed,” Wanek said. “The proposed building bond is the third phase of a plan initiated by a citizen’s task force aimed at meeting student needs into the future. Deferred maintenance is making the work urgent, and with all-time low financing rates, construction costs can be kept low.”
The citizen’s task force, which was formed in 2010, represents a cross section of people including rural and town residents, business owners, teachers, seniors and farmers. The group looked at information such as enrollment and school finances before creating a prioritized list and budget to submit to the school board.
The task force recognized that the school is used extensively for community events after school, in the evenings and on weekends. But according to Trevor Steeves, the school’s head of maintenance who is also the community’s fire chief, there is no way to secure the school and prevent people from wandering the halls during events.
“Six interior doors that were used for security had to be removed with the new fire codes because they created dead end spaces,” Stevves said. “Not being able to close off sections of the school creates major security issues.”
Steeves adds that the maze of hallways makes it difficult to get from one side of the school to the other.
“If you are in a wheelchair in the hallway by the office and you want to get to the cafeteria, you have to go outside along the sidewalk because there is no other route without stairs,” Steeves said, adding that two floors above the auditorium had to be closed down because they were not accessible. “People have said, ‘why don’t you just put in an elevator,’ but they are not really looking at what that would take. The slope of the floor of the auditorium is too steep — it does not meet current code — and there is extensive water damage to the upper floors from a previous roof leak.”
While some of the areas that do not meet current building codes are grandfathered in, once any modifications are done, such as installing an elevator, all of the code issues for that area would need to be addressed.
Sports facilities are also earmarked for updates. Currently, the school has one regulation-size gym. While the lunchroom has been pulling double duty for some physical education classes, there are scheduling conflicts for games and practices in the gym, causing usage to go late into the evening, and there is not enough room for spectators.
“Because of back to back practice schedules, kids get home as late as 10 in the evening and still have to do homework,” said Wanek. “We’ve had to shut the doors during events and turn people away because we don’t have enough seating capacity.”
Renovations would include a new locker room, wrestling and dance space, with the oldest section of the gym building being replaced.
Wanek adds that the remodeling plan would include a commons area for students and the community to gather, something that doesn’t exist currently.
While the school needs are clear to the task force, a newly formed grass roots opposition group called Pelican Rapids Citizens Acting for Responsible Education Committee, or PR CARE has been sending out “vote no” literature. PR CARE hired a consultant Paul R. Dorr of Copperhead Consulting Services based in Iowa. According to Dorr’s website rollbacklocalgov.com, he has assisted local groups in Texas, South Carolina and South Dakota to defeat “unchecked spending proposals” at the local level.
The Bible-quoting consultant states: “It boils down to this — while serving Christ, if I can serve my clients and help protect your community and your neighbors from the financial tidal wave coming — don’t we all benefit?…It is time for faithful Christians to lead again!”
According to school officials, Dorr has never visited Pelican Rapids High School, and attempts to contact him by The Journal went unanswered.
It has been difficult to find anyone outside of the school to speak on the record. Several people downtown declined comment on Thursday, and a call to West Central Turkeys, which would see the biggest tax increase if the referendum passes, went unanswered. The Pelican Lake Property Owners Association has apparently taken a neutral position on the Pelican school vote.
The school has extensive information on the bond issue, including a calculator to see what a property owner’s tax impact would be based on assessed value. The website is pelicanrapids.k12.mn.us
“The project has so many ramifications,” said Wanek. “Students having an updated space that can address their needs into the 21st century, safety, and having an attractive, functioning school for the people here and for those considering living in the community.”
“In 2005 a lot of people were not in favor of a new building, but said they would support upgrading the building,” said Steeves. “We’ll see on March 12.”