Three-phase plan to address Knoxville Schools’ facility needs

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Clarification: In the print edition of this story in the latest Tribune, it may have been unclear that no decisions have been made regarding Phase 3 and a turf surface at Ken Locke Stadium. A committee will be formed at that determination will be made when the project gets closer. We regret any confusion this may have caused.

Voters in the Knoxville School District can expect to go to the polls again in March, to choose whether to borrow $26 million in general obligation bonds to improve Northstar Elementary and build a new middle school. To pass, at least 60 percent of ballots cast must be in favor.

Superintendent Cassi Pearson reports that the facilities task force reviewed assessments of the buildings and prioritized the greatest needs. Financial advisers from Piper-Jaffray worked with the board to illustrate how the top priorities can be paid for.

Plans for renovations at Northstar will be similar to those recently completed at West Elementary. This will include a secured entrance and office, as well as a new gymnasium. In the older section of Northstar, new windows, ceiling, carpet, lights, HVAC system would be installed. Currently, sections of Northstar do not have air conditioning. Should voters approve the bonds and the district moves forward with the project there will be new ac installation, every classroom in the district would be air conditioned.

The desire for a new gym stems from a need for a competition gym to accommodate fourth and fifth grade students. The current gym would remain, but would be used solely as a cafeteria. The district is also considering the option of renovating the entire kitchen at Northstar.

Pearson says, at the high end of estimates, the cost for the Northstar work would be $8 million. West’s renovations cost $7 million.

The other project involves Knoxville Middle School. After touring the building and discussion with experts, it was concluded that renovations would cost nearly as much as building a new structure. The district was encouraged, if financially able, to consider a new building.

As the district was shown the costs of a new building and opportunities that come with it, there is more flexibility to improve technology and make more multi-use spaces. When the task force learned of these, Pearson said it was easy for them to support new building construction. At the time of this report, the question was where to build it – on land near the current KMS or near Knoxville High School and West. The district’s architect and project managers are working on feasibility studies to make a recommendation. Pearson said the district does not intend to purchase any land for the KMS project.

The current KMS building was built in 1952, with additions in ’59, ’70, ’95 and 2005. If the board chooses to build near this building, it is possible to connect the new structure to the rooms of the 2005 addition. No decisions have been made regarding that.

If the new building is placed near KHS and the old KMS razed, the site may be utilized for green space, practice fields, etc. There are no plans to relocate the bus barn.

Estimates for the new KMS are $18 million, again on the higher end. Iowa limits the dates school boards are able to hold special elections. If the bond fails, it would be several months before voters can be asked again.

The bonds would be repaid through property tax. Pearson adds that the amount of the increase has not been determined, but there are old debts the district is close to having settled. This will result in a small increase in the current tax levy.

If the bond is approved, the public will have time to provide their input into the Northstar renovations and the new KMS. Pearson’s goal is to have the vote in March, and if approved, bid out the project in the fall, with construction beginning as soon as weather allows after a contract is approved.

More information about the board’s proposal is expected later this year. The levy increase will also be known. The board is still awaiting information from the County regarding how the new, increased property assessments will impact the district’s finances. Pearson believes the sooner the Northstar and KMS projects are done, it will be better for students and staff, as well as being more cost effective.

Phase 2

Phase 2 of the district’s facilities plan involves adding more classrooms to West Elementary. Plans for the new classrooms were part of the design of the recent renovation, but there were insufficient funds. At the time, the demand for them was not as great – but the school is welcoming larger class sizes this year and in years to come.

Since the renovation, the district has utilized two rooms for special education and KinderPrep. This was necessary because most special education students require more space.

The design will be submitted for a tornado safety room grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency when the application period opens. If the district receives the grant, 85 percent of the costs will be covered. The addition is estimated at $900,000.

Phase 3

Looking ahead to 2021-24, the district will likely update KHS and athletic fields. Ken Locke Stadium and the Randy Wilson Track have been parts of this conversation.

Following the example of other districts, Knoxville is looking to install an all-weather turf surface at Ken Locke Stadium. A facilities committee will be formed prior to Phase 3, and no decision has been made to install a turf surface.

None of the other historical aspects of the seating or design of the stadium would be affected. The turf surface would also be adapted to make the area large enough to meet the state’s athletic standards so that soccer tournaments can be held. KHS soccer games are already played in the stadium, but it is a non-conforming field due to its size.

The stadium is utilized so much that the natural grass field does not have much time to recover. If turf is installed, teams can practice on it to be better able to adapt to the difference when traveling for games.

In the past, a concept was presented that would include better handicap access to the stadium, larger concession and restroom facilities on the north end of the stadium. This might be revisited, as Pearson predicts another task force may be needed to decide what should be done to the Randy Wilson Track and Ken Locke Stadium. One thing needed at the track is more seating.

KHS, by the early 2020s, will be nearly 30 years old. It is likely to need a new roof and other possible renovations. The district wants to be prepared for those needs. A bond will not be likely for Phase 3 projects, as the board should have sales tax revenue available to pay for them.

The Marion County Tribune will continue to follow this story as it develops.