Progress slows on middle school initiative

On Oct. 18 the South Tama County Board of Education heard an update from the Middle School Facilities Task Force that is working toward a recommendation to address the aging middle school facility in Toledo.

The South Tama County Board of Education heard an update from the Middle School Project Task Force during the board’s regular meeting on Oct. 18.

Task Force volunteers Elizabeth Dolezal and Larry Fletcher detailed to the board some of the challenges and complications the group has faced in recent weeks as it prepares to deliver a recommendation to address South Tama’s century-old middle school facility.

Dolezal said the task force was given a loose set of directives from the board and is now trying to determine what information will be needed in their final recommendation.

The district and the task force initially planned to schedule community input sessions in September and October that would present two well-defined options for the community to weigh in on.

However, a recent development with the state-owned Iowa Juvenile Home (IJH) facility in Toledo as well as differing opinions within the task force itself have pushed back the process to an undetermined time.

“We’re trying to come up with a plan that everyone on our task force can agree on so that we can be unified in selling it to the community,” Fletcher said. “Right now, my feeling is that we’re not quite there yet. That’s why we’ve pushed some of those community meetings back.”

In earlier presentations to the board, architects with Invision gave a ballpark estimate of $30 million that would be needed to complete the project, regardless of location.

The estimate is a working figure that is calculated using square foot costs per student standards, current enrollment and construction costs based on other recent school building projects in the state.

Dolezal asked the board for assistance in defining exactly what questions and objectives they wanted the task force to address.

“There’s several people within the task force that are looking at the $30 million estimate, which is very broad based on square footage costs and percentages of soft costs, and they’re saying, ‘Where can we improve that number? Where can we improve the burden with the taxpayers? Where can we skinny it down?’ Because it just doesn’t seem like a school should cost that much to those members of the building committee. And it is a lot. And we’re getting hung up on the details that aren’t necessarily all within the scope of what we as a committee are here to do. So I think we have to really define what a recommendation looks like.”

Dolezal said members of the task force had reached out to personal connections they had in the construction industry to price check some of the estimates provided by the architecture firm working with the district.

“The numbers they have heard back might not encompass all of the soft costs of a project. What they’re hearing are the construction costs, not necessarily the project costs,” Dolezal said.

Soft costs in this instance would include things like architecture and engineering services as well as regulatory fees to construct a large facility.

Dolezal said the task force was solidly leaning toward the option of constructing a new middle school near the high school in Tama, until the state approached the district about further incentivizing the use of the IJH site in Toledo.

At a recent meeting in Des Moines with officials from the City of Toledo, South Tama Schools and Middle School Task Force members, state officials asked the district to put together a proposal for work the state could do to their 27-acre property in Toledo that would incentivize the district to take on the property for a middle school.

Should the district choose to pursue the IJH location for it’s middle school project, they would likely have to contend with demolition, renovation and site improvements to make the location usable.

The challenge, as Dolezal described it, would be finding enough appropriate work to propose to the state to make enough of an incentive that would outweigh the inherent downsides the IJH site presents.

Though no official estimates were delivered, the group discussed demolition costs of the cottages surrounding the main school facility at IJH to be between $1-2 million.

The combined campus option of a new building next to the high school allows the middle school to offer enrichment classes like shop, agriculture and foods they are currently not providing.

The combined site also relieves teachers whose duties are split between the middle school and the high school of the travel they would otherwise need to continue.

The music department would also be able to share the newly built band room at the high school to provide middle school students a more attractive environment as they’re trying out for band for the first time.

“It’s the student enrichment opportunities that keep many of the students wanting to come to school,” Board President Penny Tyynismaa said.

The IJH site would also likely utilize a portion of the original school building that is already decades old and has been sitting vacant for close to 10 years.

Discussion between the board members also appeared divided as Ron Houghton raised several questions regarding backtracking to get a second opinion on the services being provided by Estes Construction and Invision, both companies that have been with the district since the initial project began in 2019.

It is also unclear what impact the upcoming election will have on the Middle School project as at least one, possibly two new members will be joining the board. The project timeline outlined by Invision would look to have the board vote on a final project to put before voters sometime in December, before the new council takes office on Jan. 1.

After an hour-long discussion with the task force representatives, the board agreed to another work session with the task force at their meeting on Nov. 1.

Dolezal said the task force will work to define a dollar amount and some proposal options for the board to consider if they want to investigate the incentives being suggested by the state for the Juvenile Home property.

At the end of the discussion Superintendent Jared Smith cautioned the board that one work session might not be enough to get the task force and the board unified in the direction to take the project.

“From what I saw at the last (task force) meeting, we’re still a little ways off,” Smith said. “I would love at the next meeting for those two hours to be like magic and to get everybody on the same page. But I’m telling you, we’re pretty split right now.”