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St. Paul approves more expensive renovation of American Indian Magnet School

Students of the St. Paul American Indian Magnet School carry a banner that reads, "We are still here" during a march celebrating Indigenous People's Day on Monday, Oct. 14, 2019. Sarah Mearhoff / Forum News Service

ST. PAUL — American Indian Magnet School’s renovation is moving forward despite a $30 million price increase.

The school was among a slate of construction projects approved by the St. Paul school board on Tuesday, Feb. 18 — the first since the district undertook a wide-ranging examination of its construction spending in response to a Pioneer Press report in May.

The school remodel in the Dayton’s Bluff neighborhood first was estimated to cost $23.1 million, according to the original districtwide Facilities Master Plan adopted in 2016.

But an external review found that estimate and many others were badly flawed.

Now estimated at $53.3 million, the renovation will be costly enough that the St. Paul School District drew up alternative plans for an entirely new building on the eastern part of the property. But officials say a renovation clearly is a better option than a new K-8 school, estimated at $88.7 million.

As part of a 160-page report in October, the Dallas-based Jacobs Engineering Group questioned why St. Paul was spending so much on renovations instead of building new schools and closing others as enrollment keeps falling.

As many as five school renovations out of 19 projects either already completed or scheduled for the near future might cost more than a new building, they found.

The most striking example in their analysis was the renovation of the Global Arts Plus (formerly Linwood Monroe) lower campus, which they figured would have been $9 million cheaper to build anew.

The school district has not responded to a December request from the Pioneer Press for how much money actually was spent on 10 major projects since 2017.

The Jacobs analysis used much lower cost estimates for building new schools, which is why so many of their cost comparisons tipped in favor of starting over instead of modifying the existing schools.

School district officials so far have taken just one renovation off the schedule — Bruce Vento Elementary, whose $51.5 million design comes too close to the estimated new construction cost of $70.8 million; it likely will be rebuilt on the same site, but there is no detailed plan or timeline.

Why not new?

American Indian Magnet is right at the 60 percent threshold where the district starts considering building a new school instead of repairing an old one. But they’ve found myriad reasons for going ahead with the renovation.

For one, city zoning rules don’t allow for a new four-story school, so it would require a larger footprint. Bus and car traffic to the school would improve, but they’d lose some outdoor play space, and a new pow-wow location would be far from the parking lot.

The district also considers temporary disruptions during on-site construction, the environmental impact of replacing schools and delays to other projects when spending more on a new building.

Tim Brown, American Indian Magnet’s principal, worked at Anishinabe Academy in Minneapolis when it moved to a different building a decade ago and saw enrollment fall.

“We moved, but we lost a lot along the way. The community didn’t move with us,” he told the board during a study session last week.