The Butte School District No. 1 Board of Trustees unanimously approved a nearly $2 million addition to Kennedy Elementary School at their monthly meeting on Monday night.
The decision came in response to significant weather damage done to the school’s two relocatable classrooms over the winter, and it means the district will spend roughly half of a $3.7 school bond project premium much sooner than it thought.
District officials previously anticipated that premium would be spent to cover possible contingencies or cost overruns related to upcoming work that will be paid for with a $35 million bond that local voters passed overwhelmingly in November.
Soon after that bond was passed, the school board voted to approve a potential premium for bond investors. As Dennis Clague, district business director, explained at the time, investors are often willing to pay a premium upfront to ensure they get higher returns, through higher interest rates, in the long run.
In the case of the Butte school bond, the district got $38.7 million for its $35 million bond. Hence, the $3.7 million premium.
Clague said in January that the Butte public school district did not intend to spend this premium, or buffer money, until it reached the $35 million threshold. Now, before the bond project renovations have started, half of that buffer money has already been set aside for the new Kennedy addition, which will consist of two classrooms, a library and two restrooms, and replace the relocatable classrooms on the west side of the main building.
While the money is being spent sooner than expected on a different project than expected, the trustees agreed Kennedy's needs were urgent and appropriate.
After a rough sketch of the potential $1.9 million Kennedy addition created by SMA Architects was given to trustees, Clague assured the board that the new project would not affect the rest of the school bond renovations, and that it fell under the larger bond project’s mission to improve safety at the elementary schools.
“These buildings (relocatable classrooms) are not the most structurally sound and have long outlived their lifespan,” Clague said, noting that the relocatable classrooms are over 20 years old. “The bond premium was determined to be used for unforeseen costs, and this fits into that now that the buildings are unsafe.”
According to Travis Johnson, principal of Kennedy Elementary School, two fourth grade classrooms are currently housed in one of the trailer units.
The elementary school’s library and technology classroom, including a computer lab, are housed in the other portable unit, which every grade level in the school accesses during a typical school week, Johnson said.
The roof of the library and technology unit was badly damaged in late February, during one of the Butte public school district’s three snow days. The result was a leaky roof that created an unsafe environment for Kennedy students, Johnson said.
Since the damage was done, Kennedy’s library and technology teacher has been forced to travel from class to class to teach students, Johnson added.
While the unit containing the two fourth grade classes is still being used, Johnson said discussions about how to move the classrooms, the library and the computer lab to a more secure location inside Kennedy's main building have been ongoing for some time.
And he said getting students out of the relocatable units is about more than convenience. Having students travel back and forth between the main building and the two separate trailers is a safety concern, Johnson said.
“It makes me feel great knowing the kids and staff will now be secure and safe in the building,” Johnson said of the school board's decision. “I’m so glad the school board and district administrators support that."
At the Monday school board meeting, Clague and district Superintendent Judy Jonart echoed Johnson's safety concerns and said that SMA Architects, the contracting firm Langlas & Associates, and PayneWest Insurance were all brought to Kennedy Elementary School after the winter damage occurred to help the district assess whether it would be more feasible to replace the decades-old trailers or to expand the main school building.
Clague said SMA and Langlas agreed that a new addition to Kennedy would be the safest and most secure option for students.
He also said the district expects to receive roughly $161,000 in insurance money for the damage to the relocatable classrooms, which it will put toward the cost of the addition. This reimbursement was not included in the projected cost presented to the board, Clague said.
Clague also told trustees that, while Kennedy’s new addition will be separate from the school bond project, it falls under the bond’s scope of improving the safety and security of the district’s elementary schools.
He noted that the estimated $1.9 million in work at Kennedy is an unforeseen cost, which is why the district feels it is appropriate to use part of the bond premium to foot its bill.
After Clague and Jonart explained the specifics of the new Kennedy addition and why it was needed, trustee Susanne Dauenhauer spoke up.
“I agree that this falls under the school bond project, but is it OK?” Dauenhauer asked about the plan to include the Kennedy addition within the larger bond project umbrella months after locals cast their votes.
“We didn’t specifically say we were going to look at this, but we wanted the bond improvements to be a little vague, because we didn’t know exactly what we were getting into,” Clague responded. He also answered questions about the logistics of the new addition on Monday from trustees Becky Nichols, Quinton Queer and Tom Bilteen before the board unanimously approved the new Kennedy project.
When asked why this addition wasn’t added to the school bond project in the first place, Clague said it was because it wasn’t pressing at the time and because the district didn’t want to overwhelm voters.
“We tried to keep the scope of the bond project palatable and not excessive,” Clague said Tuesday after the school board meeting. “We didn’t want to add another $2 million onto the bond. But now that we have a more pressing need and some unexpected funds available, we have to.”
Clague also said he’s not concerned about taking from the bond project premium money at this point, but he acknowledged there is always a risk for increased construction prices.
On Tuesday morning, Clague said he informed both SMA Architects and Langlas & Associates of the board’s decision, and that he hopes they will formalize a plan for the Kennedy addition in the near future.
The larger bond project renovations are set to begin in June for Kennedy, Emerson and Hillcrest elementary schools, Clague said. The various construction bid packages, separate for each school, were put out to interested subcontractors on Monday. East Middle School renovations will not take place this summer, as has been previously reported.
The construction of the Kennedy addition will run parallel to the school’s projected bond renovations, Clague said, and the district hopes the school’s new classrooms, library and bathrooms will be finished by January 2020.
District officials will also be collaborating with Johnson and his staff in the coming months to ensure Kennedy classrooms will be reorganized to ensure no students are displaced during to construction and to ensure there is still parking available at the school for staff and parents.