Process was long, frustrating–but school upgrades were great product in the end

Editor’s note: 2019 will be a pivotal year for Pelican Rapids school board members, faculty-staff, administrators–and families. The Press invited experienced, outgoing school board members to look both backward and forward for insights. 

Final comments from those former members; Charlie Blixt, Dena Johnson and Kathy Ouren area published here–with a retrospective focus on the high school renovations, which is a highlight of their tenures on the Pelican school board. 

Past Pelican Rapids School Board members have offered reflections on the past–and future–in recent editions of the Pelican Rapids Press. 

Departing from the board are three members, representing 35 years of experience: Dena Johnson and Charlie Blixt, who narrowly lost their re-election bids. Kathy Ouren, meanwhile, chose not to run again. 

The Press invited these former members to reflect back on the major renovation of the Pelican high school campus.  The approximate $26 million project transformed the high school in many aspects; and also resulted in a new gym and auditorium. These facilities are among the finest in the region and today, the quality is attracting new tournament and sports activities, and performing arts events that are a benefit to the greater Pelican area. 

Below in this column, the departing members were invited to share some of their thoughts on these major improvements to our school facilities. 

The board convened in January  with three new faces for the new year following the November 2018 election: Brittany Dokken, Greg Larson and Brenda Olson.  Rounding out the board are Anne Peterson, Jon Karger and Mike Forsgren. 

Following are some final comments from outgoing members Ouren, Blixt and Johnson.

Kathy Ouren

(The high school renovation, gym, auditorium project) was a lot of work and worry – wanting a great facility for our kids to learn and grow in, knowing they deserved the best, and understanding that it was a lot to ask of the members of our school district to make the needed investment.  

I was so disappointed when the first referendum that I was involved in failed, because I wanted a new school with the latest classroom/curriculum features for the kids.

We worked hard after that to understand the decision of the voters and to explore other options with the many people who believed strongly that we could come up with another good option for our district to consider.  

There were several years after that first referendum where our focus had to turn toward the lack of state funding for all schools in Minnesota and how we were going to continue operations at the same level of excellence that we were accustomed to in Pelican in such a negative financial environment.  

We went through budget cuts and several operating levies, and a big alumni fundraiser, before the 4th operating levy finally passed. 

After our finances stabilized, the time was right again to ask our district to consider a renovation plan for updating and fixing our school buildings. 

 I was grateful beyond words to all who supported the renovation, and so happy that we could give our Pelican students a really nice facility that would meet their needs in our fast changing, technological world.  It was a great feeling.

Charlie Blixt 

This was a long process.  It started with work to identify the stakeholders, educate them about school needs and then enlisting volunteers to help with project design and the get out the bond vote campaign. The first bond vote failed.  That was unfortunate because we missed the absolute bottom in construction cost during the economic down turn.  If we had passed the first bond, we would have gotten bids in the most competitive building market possible and gotten more for our dollar.  

The second vote passed but we had to increase the amount needed by a couple million just to compensate for the uptick in building costs.  

Once passed, we still had to scale back some of our original plans because escalating construction costs were more than anticipated and the bids came in higher than projected.  But when it was completed, we ended up with an excellent facility that included upgrades to both buildings and some of the nicest school projects in the area.  

Fortunately, we were able to tap into the (legislature approved) deferred maintained money for building upkeep at the same time as the project was being built.  By doing this we enhanced the project value and ended up with a much better product because we combined the two work processes. 

I want to thank (school facilities superintendent) Trevor Steeves for providing special help and oversight during the building project. We had a project manager, but the board also had Trevor to keep us informed and to make sure things weren’t missed.  Trevor had a very positive effect on the project.   

Dena Johnson 

After we finally passed our operating levy, we looked forward and developed our strategic plan which included solutions to our aging buildings.  

So we began the process of creating a plan to update and remodel and went out for a building bond, the process was similar and we had help from our project consultants.  It only took two tries and it passed.  The major stress was trying to retrofit new plans into an old building. 

 It was a long and sometimes frustrating project, but we ended up with a great product in the end.