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Your Schools: Proactive review determines most cost-effective solutions

Chad Smurawa

Editor's note: This week's guest columnist is Chad Smurawa, director of Finance and Facilities Management for the School District of River Falls.

My dad was the kind of guy that could tackle just about any home maintenance project imaginable.

One summer, Dad declared that the roof on the house was in need of replacement. My response to Dad was, "I think the roof looks fine."

He responded that while it may look OK, the roof had served its useful life and if we didn't replace it that summer, we risked a leaky roof that winter which could cause expensive damage to other parts of the house.

Our district is doing the same type of proactive review of our facilities to determine how to best and most cost-effectively preserve our buildings for the next 40 years, similar to what Dad did with our roof many years ago.

Part of the mission of our district is to ensure that our school buildings are safe for students, efficient to operate, and continue to serve as a source of pride for the community. This past year, the school board asked the community, through the strategic planning process, to review the condition, educational adequacy and space needs of the district.

To accomplish that goal, 20 district residents, including staff members, retirees, parents, and our partners from the city volunteered to take part in 10 evening meetings to evaluate the conditions and space needs at each school.

The goals of the group were to: Identify and develop a plan to address district-wide deferred maintenance; ensure our schools are student-centered, safe, and healthy buildings that provide a secure environment with quality air and lighting; and address the long term future of all district buildings, including the River Falls Academy and Greenwood Elementary.

Our group worked with an engineering firm, a demographer, an energy efficiency consultant, and a security expert to provide an independent, third-party perspective on the condition of district facilities.

The engineering firm did an exhaustive study of all major building components, including heating, ventilation, lighting, electrical systems, roofs, boilers, and the energy efficiency of our schools. With the exception of the high school, the major mechanical components in the district's buildings are original and nearing the end of their useful lives, ranging in age from 20-80 years old.

Like any older home, the core of our buildings are structurally sound and well-built but in need of major mechanical systems overhauls that will save money for the district down the road. Recommendations also include minor facility changes that will improve security in each school, including reconfiguring the main entrances at each school to ensure all visitors first check in at the main office.

The review also showed that the 80-year-old Academy cannot support educational programs in a cost effective manner. The building, which now houses the Public Montessori Elementary Program and the Renaissance Academy Alternative High School, requires significant investment merely to bring it up to current standards. In fact, the cost of remodeling the Academy building to meet current standards would cost 50% more than relocating the programs to other expanded district facilities.

The district is committed to working with the community to identify alternative uses for the Academy's campus.

The strategic planning committee also worked with Hazel Reinhardt, a respected demographer, to forecast projected enrollment growth thru 2020. Her report shows that the district will add about 250 students over the next 10 years.

Based on that analysis, the committee feels comfortable that the space available at the secondary level will be sufficient for expected growth.

At the elementary level, the committee expects growth to push capacity limits, and therefore recommends the district replace the four 1978 "temporary" portable classrooms at Westside Elementary with four permanent classrooms.

Additionally, the committee recommends an addition to one of the other elementary schools to support growth of the Montessori Program.

Those recommendations have been submitted to the Board of Education. An Ad Hoc Board Committee is expected to begin reviewing the recommendations and develop a plan which addresses the maintenance needs of the district in a cost effective manner that preserves our schools for future generations.