A discussion on relocating a pair of portable classrooms to accommodate next year’s inaugural eighth-grade class at the Ernest Hemingway STEAM School in Ketchum dredged up debate over the planned expansion this week as Blaine County School District trustees balked at the price tag associated with completing the project.
The lone bid to move the trailers and perform required code and disability compliance upgrades came in at $639,200—around three times the $200,000 to $250,000 initial estimate by district administrators—though Jolyon Sawrey of Vital Ink Architecture in Hailey said he could work “in good faith” with the contractor, Elevation Builders, to trim the bill through on-site savings once construction commenced.
Left unresolved, Tuesday’s meeting set up another. The board sent Sawrey, Brian Bothwell of Elevation, and district staff back to the drawing board charged with providing more detailed cost-cutting options prior to a second session Thursday afternoon.
Ultimately, they found $137,200 worth—enough to convince a split board to move the project forward by a 4-1 vote. Trustee Ryan Degn cast the sole vote against the $502,000 outlay.
“We are in a unique situation where we need to get this done in a hurry,” Sawrey told the trustees on Tuesday. “We want to be frugal and sensitive to pricing, but it is what it is. Anytime you touch a building, you need to bring it up to current code.
“We were lucky to get one bid. If you put it out again, I don’t think you’ll get another.”
Still, the sticker shock was enough to drag an expected rubber-stamp agenda item Tuesday evening into the second board meeting—and revive questions about the feasibility of developing a full-scale middle school in Ketchum.
The district plans to open the eighth grade at the start of the 2019-20 school year, with 32 students expected to enroll, according to March projections by district Finance Manager Bryan Fletcher. That group represents the first to attend Hemingway past fifth grade following the board’s decision to grow the school in 2017, and remains smaller than classes that have signed on since. Superintendent GwenCarol Holmes told the board that adding seventh and eighth grade classes would cost about $2 million in new infrastructure.
Eventually, Hemingway will need to add four classrooms, or else start conducting classes in common areas, Principal Tish Short said.
“We’re bursting at the seams—we have no space left,” she said. “There’s really no wiggle room. I don’t see anyway to make it work [without the trailers], unless we start holding classes in the lobby.”
The two temporary trailers—one of which currently houses a preschool class in Hailey, the other a storage space in Bellevue—are a four-room stop-gap prior to a potential buildout of the school itself. Placed behind the existing building, they’d be used for as few as three years and as many as 10, depending on the district’s ability to raise money for the project, Holmes said Tuesday. Short and her staff are prepared for five to 10.
“Who has a crystal ball?” Holmes said, when asked how long the trailers would be in place.
Regardless of the timetable, funding to renovate the school itself likely needs to come in the form of a local plant facilities levy, which would require voter support—another unknown.
One thing became clear Tuesday—expanding the existing building, or building new classrooms, will cost much more. Holmes said buying two new trailers would cost about $1 million, and, according to a previous study conducted by Sawrey, expanding the current building must be accompanied by a significant renovation of its critical infrastructure, including plumbing systems.
“If the levy gets approved, you’re not just going to be spending $1 million—it’s going to be a lot more than that,” Sawrey said. “With these, we’re using the words ‘temporary’ and ‘portable.’ That’s important—they’re not to the standards to which the district builds [permanent structures].”
Fletcher said the district could handle the cost of the proposed contract, but would need to go out for a new levy to fund larger projects in the future. The current plant facilities levy, which generates $2.99 million annually, is set to lapse next year.
“The reason we’re rushing this through is because we need to be ready for school,” Holmes said. “If we decide not to go forward, we’ll be telling our parents, ‘Never mind, your kids are not going to eighth grade at Hemingway.’”
On Tuesday, Trustees Rob Clayton and Kevin Garrison—both of whom voted in favor of expansion in 2017—expressed reservations about the viability of maintaining multiple middle schools, though by Thursday they’d softened their stance back to support. Degn, who represents Carey, voiced the strongest opposition throughout.
“It feels like we’re taking away money from other schools in the district to accommodate a specific STEAM school that, in my opinion, we shouldn’t have agreed to in the first place,” he said of the pending expansion. “We have a perfectly good middle school already. … Just because we agreed to do it doesn’t mean we need to go through with it, costs be damned.”
For Trustee Ellen Mandeville, who voted in favor of adding the middle school, the obligation was stronger.
“I think to change that now would be reneging on the entire community of Ketchum,” she said on Tuesday. “The board made a commitment. I have no interest whatsoever in reversing that commitment.”
For Holmes, the dilemma points to something the district is doing right.
“I like to see the glass half full,” Holmes said Tuesday. “We have this problem because we have kids that want to go to a STEAM school, and the city of Ketchum is excited to have them. It’s a problem, but it’s also a cause for celebration.”