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School board votes not to purchase $1.4 million boiler for Canyon Lake Elementary

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Canyon Lake Elementary School

Canyon Lake Elementary School in Rapid City.

The Rapid City Area Schools Board of Education voted unanimously Thursday evening against approving the purchase of a new HVAC system for Canyon Lake Elementary School at an estimated cost of $1.4 million. An affirmative vote would have directed the district to purchase and install a system to be ready at the beginning of next school year.

Board members cast the vote at a special meeting that took place over Zoom.

On Tuesday, board members discussed options at length after presentations by Superintendent Lori Simon and Director of Facilities Kumar Veluswamy. Both cautioned against spending the money on a facility with a host of other significant problems.

“I just cannot recommend that kind of expenditure in that campus with the multitude of issues that it has,” Simon said on Tuesday. “That’s throwing a lot of money at a problem child.”

In an interview on Friday, after the vote, Simon said the district "will continue to explore our various options and possibly expand them." She noted that Canyon Lake Elementary School will remain open in the spring, with an emergency plan ready if the HVAC system becomes unworkable.

Board members discussed the issue briefly during Thursday's meeting, after the lengthier conversation during Tuesday's meeting. Board President Kate Thomas opened Thursday's discussion with a reminder that “the advice (from the administration) was not to replace the (HVAC system) at that amount of money because that is too much into a school that may have one more thing go down at any minute.” She said she preferred the other options presented by the administration during Tuesday’s meeting.

Board member Jim Hansen voiced concern about not replacing the HVAC system.

“We need that school, and we do not have the money – 30 plus million dollars – to build a new school to cover those students,” he said. “To me, replacing the boiler would make more sense than shifting everybody around for years – years – until a new school opens for those kids.”

Board member Troy Carr asked Hansen if he was concerned about the problems with Canyon Lake Elementary outlined by Veluswamy on Tuesday.

“He’s absolutely correct, Mr. Carr, but almost every school that we have has major problems,” Hansen said. “Like I said, this is a lose-lose situation, but the bigger damage is disrupting those lives for years to come, and we really don’t have a place to put those children long-term. It’s going to take at least a decade before we build a new school.”

Board member Amy Policky raised the possibility of installing less expensive forms of heating systems and emphasized that her vote was to refrain from approving a new HVAC system at this time. She acknowledged that the board may consider the move again.

“I don’t want to do it right now,” she said.

Board member Clay Colombe also indicated his vote was not to approve replacement at this time.

“I think it is premature to allocate that amount of money to fix such an aging building,” he said. “We will do everything we can to not disrupt people’s lives as much as possible. I do think we need more time to look at other options.”

Before the vote, Thomas stated, “A vote no is to not approve of it, but it doesn’t mean it can’t come back in the future. It’s just giving the administration direction on which way we’re thinking of going.”

Hansen ultimately voted no along with other board members, but as he cast his vote he said: “No, but I will be on the facilities committee looking very hard to bring something back.”

The 45-year old HVAC system has sparked a growing number of maintenance calls in recent weeks while struggling to heat classrooms adequately, Veluswamy explained earlier this week.

Simon and Veluswamy have noted a host of problems with the facility, including water table concerns, structural and mechanical issues, air quality concerns, outdated electrical capacity, and limited educational suitability. The school is divided into six buildings, including four annexes – a situation Veluswamy has noted leads to lost instructional time as students move from building to building.

The failing HVAC system is in the school’s main building.

Veluswamy has noted that strong maintenance over the years has already allowed the HVAC system to outlast its expected life span by at least 15 years.

Canyon Lake Elementary School was among the schools scheduled to be replaced if a bond had been approved in February 2020. Simon stressed at Tuesday's meeting the necessity of new building construction as she cautioned against spending money on the HVAC system for Canyon Lake Elementary School.

During Tuesday’s meeting, preceding the vote on Thursday, Simon presented three options.

She proposed the possibility of replacing the HVAC system over the summer, so that it’s ready for next school year, as Option 1. The other two options involved using other buildings for services, as well as transferring students to other schools. Both were designed to take effect at the beginning of next school year unless emergency conditions forced changes later this school year.

The second and third options Simon presented are as follows:

In Option 2, she said, “Canyon Lake would move from being a three-section school at each grade level to a two-section school,” she said. That would mean moving special education and preschool programs to Horace Mann Elementary School. It would also mean moving the Lakota Immersion program to General Beadle or Knollwood Heights Elementary School. Student nutrition would move to Rapid City High School or Lincoln. Bus 112 students would be transferred to General Beadle or Knollwood.

“We would use the remaining Canyon Lake campus to have two sections of each grade level, K through 5,” she said, noting that the third teacher in each class would provide support.

“Finally, we would hopefully use the gym and four classrooms closest to the gym in Canyon Lake West, and lease a portable boiler system in that part of the campus.”

Option 3, Simon explained, would also involve making Canyon Lake a two-section, rather than a three-section, school and would also entail moving special education and preschool programs to Horace Mann, as well as student nutrition to Rapid City High School or Lincoln. The Lakota Immersion program would also, as in Option 2, move to General Beadle or Knollwood, and students on Bus 112 would also be transferred to General Beadle or Knollwood.

Option 3 would also use Canyon Lake East and the Lincoln campuses – creating “somewhat of a divided campus” – and move workforce development to Rapid City High School.

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