Blanding Elementary School on fast track for new construction
by Bill Boyle
San Juan Record Editor
The construction timeline for a new elementary school for Blanding is on a fast track, with a targeted date for ground-breaking by the end of the current school year.
Details were discussed at the August 9 meeting of the San Juan School board.
School District Business Administrator Tyrel Pemberton outlined a six-step process over the next year that will take the project from a current pre-design concept to ground-breaking in May. Eventually, construction will be completed over the next three years.
Pemberton admitted that a goal to start construction by May is a tight turn-around.
“A critical goal will be to stay on schedule to meet the cost estimate,” said Pemberton.
The district is wrapping up a conceptual plan and moving into the developing of a schematic plan over the next month.
Design development will occur through the fall and winter, with the development of construction documents, seeking bids, and awarding a contract by May, 2024.
Officials said the school should represent the Blanding community and said there will be opportunity for input from community members.
A variety of committee, stakeholder and community meetings will take place in Blanding in coming weeks.
Board member Merry Shumway said several community members have mentioned feeling out of the loop, but said there would be opportunity to provide ideas and suggestions.
Brian Parker, from the MHTN architectural firm that is assisting in the design process, said community input is built into the development process for the school and decisions are made with community input. “We are just barely starting that process,” said Parker.
The district will look at the lessons learned from the construction of other elementary schools in the district at Monument Valley, Monticello, and Bluff.
Construction is expected to occur for 25 months between May, 2024 and June, 2026.
When construction is completed on the new building at 800 North and 100 West, it will house the largest and most diverse school in the district. There were 529 students at Blanding Elementary in the prior school year.
One reason for the streamlined schedule is the price, with the cost for a new school rising by an estimated $2 million with each six-month delay.
School District Business Administrator Tyrel Pemberton said prices for new construction have exploded in recent years.
The current estimated price for construction of the building is $47 million, with two other projects – new transportation infrastructure and entryway remodel projects at several schools – contributing to a $51.3 million price tag for capital projects.
Pemberton estimates that when construction begins, the capital fund balance will total $21.7 million and the building reserve fund will total $9.7 million.
This will total $31.5 million in available district funds. An estimated $19.3 million more will be needed to complete the projects.
Pemberton said the Utah State legislature set aside $50 million in a Rural Schools Capital Fund. The district will apply for a grant from the fund in November.
“We are hoping that that plays out in our favor,” said Pemberton
More than a dozen rural school districts are eligible to apply.
“We will try to maximize the support that we can get,” said Pemberton, who added that the fast-track process to prepare for new construction will help the application for funding.
Pemberton said the state is looking for “shovel-ready” projects that can proceed immediately.
Pemberton said that the remaining fund can come from debt financing, “We are looking at revenue bonding, and hope to use current revenues to pay the bonds so there would be no new tax obligation for taxpayers.”
The San Juan School District has completed nearly $100 million in capital projects over the past 15 years without incurring any debt financing.
In other matters at the August 9 board meeting, the board discussed a request to consider two pay periods a month for district employees, rather than just one pay period a month.
Board member Nelson Yellowman requested the discussion, stating that he hears requests for bi-monthly payroll quite often from district employees. Yellowman classified the policy as creating a “monthly hardship time.”
“There seems to be no reason or any kind of excuse of why we can’t pay twice a month,” said Yellowman. “We ought to give a little more to help them out.”
Yellowman added that the monthly payroll policy impacts all employees, including bus drivers, custodians, para-professionals, and food service workers.
Pemberton strongly discouraged the board from changing the monthly payroll practice that has been in place for many years.
Pemberton stated that payroll is a complicated process that can involve up to 700 employees at the peak time of the school year, adding, “It is a huge time burden and we don’t have the resources.”
Pemberton explained that the business office sent a questionnaire to each Utah school district and of the 30 districts that responded, 80 percent have a monthly payroll.
Yellowman pushed back, stating, “I didn’t hear one thing that we can do to jump these hurdles. A change would motivate employees and encourage people to work for the San Juan School District.
“Employees should be at the front of the line, not the end of the line. That is why I bring this up again and again.”
Board member Merry Shumway pointed out that the district would pay the same amount of money to the employees regardless of the number of pay periods. “This would be an extra cost for the district and would cost more money to pay the same amount of money.”
Board member Steve Black stated that there is a push in many cutting-edge companies to pay employees as soon as possible.
Black acknowledged that it can be very difficult to not receive a first paycheck until after a full month of work, particularly for new and hourly employees,
Pemberton revisited his recommendation, stating that he strongly discouraged the request in part because of the timing as the new school year begins.
“Software has powerful tools that can help us with things,” said Pemberton. “Maybe we can explore possibilities of adjusting the policy during this fiscal year and give us time to really explore the issue.”
Board president Lori Maughan requested that the business office complete a cost analysis to see what the actual cost would be for two pay periods a month.
The board also discussed policy regarding remote work. In the spring, the board approved remote work for an employee with specialized skills who left the area. The temporary policy approving the work is set to expire in September.
Superintendent Christine Fitzgerald said, “It is in the best interests of the district if we extend a little longer for this position.” The superintendent suggested an extension through February.
“This is a very specialized position and it would significantly disrupt every classroom throughout the district if the remote work was not allowed.”
The board did not act on the agenda item, instead classifying the issue as an administrative decision.
San Juan Sweet Job awards were presented to outgoing Superintendent Ron Nielson and curriculum specialist Jeff Winget.
The board also approved new spend plan for programs at Monticello and Monument Valley High School.
The plan at Monticello includes a trip to Los Alamos, NM every other year for juniors and seniors who are studying history and physics.
The trip will focus on the Manhattan Project and development of the atomic bomb in 1945.
Although it had a minor role as the site of a uranium processing plant during World War II, Monticello is listed as one of the 15 communities that were part of the Manhattan Project.
The other spend plan for Monticello will send students to the National History Fair if they qualify at state level.
The newly approved spend plans at Monument Valley High School are for the first cheer program at the school in many years, a new E-sports program, and expanding the girls basketball plan to include a summer camp.