School Improvements - Kitchen unsafe, building inaccessible

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Rose Engelhardt, who works in the kitchen at Central Schools, demonstrates the tight working space between the gas-top range and the drawers where cooking utensils are kept

By Pam Reinig

Register Editor


Under any circumstances, preparing lunch for hundreds of hungry students is a daunting task that requires timing and a certain degree of choreography. That’s especially true at Central Schools where the 5-person food service team must measure their movements as precisely as they measure a recipe’s ingredients.

Only a few inches separate the gas stove tops and the drawers where utensils are kept. Rose Engelhardt, who has worked in the Central kitchen for 22 years, knows what happens if you reach too quickly for a spatula or ladle: You get burned.  

The tight fit of appliances and work areas isn’t the only problem in this area. There are electrical boxes over the sink and an inadequate ventilation system. The walk-in freezer is inaccessible from the kitchen. To retrieve something from it, a worker must leave the area, walk outdoors and up the block, and then retrace her steps pulling a four-wheel cart. In winter months, it’s a less than enjoyable task.

“The kitchen is just one area of the building that’s woefully outdated,” said Superintendent Nick Trenkamp. “We have classrooms that we’re using as offices right now because the rooms aren’t easily accessible to all students. And we’re using our science lab as a classroom so we don’t have a dedicated lab for science classes.”

A number of issues with the outdated building are addressed in a facilities plan that was several months in development. The culmination of the plan is a $6 million bond vote set for the first week in April. 

A $6.8 million bond that addressed several infrastructure issues was defeated in June 2015. Since then the school has replaced its outdated boiler system using $800,000 of local option sales tax money. That big-ticket item has been removed from the current plan, of course. Cost-savings made by cutting back on the 2015 plan have been offset by ever-rising material and labor costs.

“There’s no fluff here,” Trenkamp insisted. “We’re addressing serious safety and accessibility issues, and that’s about it.” 

To get a better idea of how changes can be incorporated into an existing structure, members of the 40-person facilities planning committee visited several schools. Particularly enlightening were the changes made to Decorah schools.

“I know some people thought, ‘Why Decorah? They’re not us,’” said Trenkamp. “But they worked with the same architect and they were an actual remodel, which is what we’re looking at. It was a great visit and it really spurred the passion of the people who participated.”

Some highlights of the new Central plan include: 

• first-floor commons/cafeteria (currently, lobby and media center area)

• fully secured entrance for the high school/middle school plus new high school offices (located in current administrative office area; administrative offices will move to the back of the elementary area)

• separate, secure elementary entrance with limited pull-in parking

• fully remodeled science classrooms, science lab and greenhouse

• new middle school/high school media center near ms/hs classooms

• additional 900 square feet of academic space 

In addition, the plan calls for diagonal parking spots along the building’s southeast side and improvements throughout the building to make the space ADA-compliant. Currently, the school has no handicap-accessible bathrooms. In addition, there are 22 different elevations throughout, which makes the school difficult to navigate.

To gather public input on the plan, the school board hosted open forums in the communities served by the school district. Building tours were given weekends in February and continue throughout March. The architect will be present at the March 26 tour; tour times are 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Trenkamp has also been speaking to church, civic and social organizations.

Enrollment at Central has dipped slightly over the past three years, and Trankamp said that fact has been noted at some forums.

“I don’t care what the enrollment does, there comes a time when you have to fix your building,” he said, adding that nothing requiring a bond has been done to Central in more than 40 years. He also added that his five-year projections for the school show solid financial health.

“We also need to think in terms of what this school does for our local and area economy,” Trenkamp added. “We’d be a much different community without a school.”

If the bond passes, work will begin in about a year and take about 36 months to complete. Obviously, there will be property tax increases to pay for the bond but the monthly impact could be less than the cost of a fancy coffee drink. According to Trenkamp, the average value of a house in Elkader is about $65,000. The montly tax increase to that homeowner would be $5.87. (A detailed tax impact sheet can be found on Central’s website.)


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