Finally managing to pass a school improvement bond referendum in early November after so many failed attempts understandably led to elation among staff and administration of the St. James school district, but after the cloud of euphoria dissipated, the real work of planning construction details began.

The nearly $24 million in bonds to make improvements to the three educational sites in the city and a $250 per pupil increase in operating levy that both passed in November will allow the district to upgrade technology and pull the antiquated science rooms into this century. The pool in the high school will be brought up to code, the track will finally get an eighth lane, and it’ll be moved a safe distance away from the football field of play. The locker rooms will be modified, the high school will get a new gym/multi-purpose room, and maintenance issues--everything from carpeting and windows to electrical and mechanical--will be addressed.

The goal is to have construction completed by the fall of 2017, and the most visible work will be in the summer of 2016, said Becky Cselovszki, superintendent. Bids for most of the work will go out in April-May of 2016, and the board hopes to award bids at their May 25, 2016, meeting.

The school district is probably looking at a “long” summer in 2017 to account for construction, Cselovszki said. Students will likely start school earlier than usual in the fall of 2016, roughly in the middle of August, and be released earlier than normal in the spring of 2017, around mid-May. They then wouldn’t start school until later than usual in the fall of 2017, perhaps a week after Labor Day, leading to that “long” summer. Moreover, kindergarten wouldn’t be able to move out of Armstrong and back to Northside until the fall of 2017.

Most of the work to be done at Northside--including improvements to the pick-up and drop-off area outside--does require students to be absent from the building, she said. However, there is “a fair amount” of work at the high school that can be accomplished while students are in session.

While most of the bidding will be executed in April-May 2016, bids for HVAC improvements at Northside Elementary will be done in February 2016, Cselovszki said. Earlier bidding for that part of the project is necessary due to extensive “lag” time with equipment. The earlier bidding will allow the HVAC unit to be in place and working for the fall of 2016. That means air conditioning will return to Northside for the 2016-2017 school year. The current unit went kaput earlier this year, which meant for sweaty, uncomfortable times during a September heat wave. Students and staff will still have to endure heat this spring if it grows hot and humid.

Furthermore, the St. James Area High School football team will almost certainly not have any home games in the fall of 2017, as work will be ongoing on their field, she said. For example, September is the optimum time for seeding, and those seeds need all winter to take root properly.

In addition to the football field improvements, the track will be repaired, and an eighth lane will be added, but that construction should not displace the track team, she said. Work on the track would likely commence as soon as the track team completes their home schedule in the spring of 2017, and it should be ready by the next time it’s needed.

One variable complicating plans for the football field and the track is the fact that in April a section of the storm sewage line, which cuts under the track, football field, and baseball field, collapsed. On the morning of April 8, pipe services confirmed that there had been a 30 inch pipe collapse, just east of the baseball field, where the sewer is 12 feet underground. As the sewer travels through St. James, it goes under streets, residents’ backyards, and by the Armstrong School, as it makes its way east of the lake.

The problem was so severe, water was coming up in the baseball field, according to Ray Hector, street superintendent. Though the matter was brought under control, both Hector and Gary Sturm, mayor of St. James, acknowledged in April the solution was more of a band-aid. “It’s going to be a temporary fix,” Hector said, while Sturm added, “This is part of a much larger project that we need to address sooner rather than later.”

Joe McCabe, St. James city manager, said earlier this month that when Civil Ag Group was repairing the break, they found the work difficult due to the age of the infrastructure, and the system kept collapsing. The city hired a firm to televise roughly 6,000 feet of line, and it confirmed that “we have a major problem on our hands.”

An estimate put the cost of renovating the system at roughly $2.5 million, but the city is confident--after speaking with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, the office of Governor Mark Dayton, and the state senate’s capital investment committee--that they could receive grant money to cover up to 25 percent of the project’s costs, McCabe said. However, exactly how much grant money--and when it might become available--remains to be determined, so the city’s plans are currently “up in the air.”

Part of the repair work for the line will happen in 2016, as it’s already part of the Highway 4 project, McCabe said. And the rest can’t be put off past 2017, for two reasons.

First, “this is a necessity, not a want,” McCabe said; the current temporary solution is not a long-term fix. Secondly, “we don’t want to be in a position where” the school district has spent copious amounts of money to improve the football field and track, only for the city to come along and do “an open cut and destroy what they’ve done.”

Due to the high cost of the project, the school district is planning their track and football field work for 2017, not 2016, as that’ll allow the city more time for their work. The city can do their part during or before the school does their portion, just not after, as it would ruin the work.

Additionally, the school board elected to split the sale of their bonds in two in the hopes of securing a better rate, Cselovszki said. Approximately $15 million in bonds went out for sale, and the school board locked in a 3.79 percent interest rate during a special session December 9; that’s better/lower than their estimated rate of 4.09. The second half of the bonds will go out in January 2016.

For the rest of this story, please see the December 17 print edition of the St. James Plaindealer.