Facing the future

The stakeholders of the consolidated district of RTR must make critical decisions now to set up their students for the best possible learning environment. Community members recently toured the buildings in all three cities and got an up-close look at the buildings' conditions.

Photo by Jenny Kirk Head Custodian Jerry Stefanick, left, highlights the boiler system while giving a tour recently of the Russell-Tyler-Ruthton High School facility in Tyler.

About a dozen people recently took the opportunity to inspect the Russell, Tyler and Ruthton facilities that make up the RTR educational system in an effort to form their own opinions about the direction the district should take regarding facilities planning in the future.

A building bond referendum looks to be looming in the near future — a community task force brought forward a recommendation to build a new pre-K to 12th-grade facility and the school board voted 6-1 to move forward with the approximately $35 million recommendation. The board would still need to approve a ballot question that district voters would then vote on.

The 33-member community task force identified several vital areas in its facility assessment, including electrical systems, lighting, hazardous materials, plumbing systems, roofs, security and ventilation. The district’s three existing buildings were constructed in different phases over time. The facilities are between 68 and 75 years old.

“I was surprised in a couple ways,” Russell Public Works Director Glen Grant said after the tours. “I graduated in 2010 and since then, there has been a lot of technology advances, which is really good to see. Going through these buildings brought back a lot of really good memories of going to school here. I’m pretty proud to have an RTR education and I hope my kids get to have those same kind of memories.”

Grant added that he was somewhat disappointed in the way the buildings were kept up.

“There’s a lot of Band-Aids put on,” he said. “If the issues would’ve been fixed when they arose, a lot of the problems we’re having now could have been avoided. It’s tough to put all the blame on any one thing. It does seem like they really let the buildings go. From some of the gossip I’d heard, the buildings are in a lot better shape than what I was expecting. They do still have a lot of potential. I think Tyler is in the worst shape. They just haven’t done anything over there.”

RTR High School in Tyler

On the tour, Jerry Stefanick, the RTR head custodian for the past four years, pointed out both the highlights and low points of the Tyler facility.

“In the summertime when it rains, there’s serious mold growth,” he said of the basement area that has been off-limits for many years. “Look at the way the foundation is deteriorating here. The only two things down here worth a hoot are the condensate pump that works for the gym and the two compressors for the walk-in cooler and freezer.”

Despite being off-limits, there are signs that students had spray-painted their names recently.

“This is not a good place for students or staff,” Stefanick said. “But they come down here and they spray-paint and then the smell goes up to the front office and you can’t get rid of it for two days.”

Stefanick calls the area, which is part of the 1908 building, the worst people can see.

“There’s no fix to the foundation anymore,” he said. “The cost of renovating it would be way more than building new. And when you remodel, all the things you’ve grandfathered into are out the window and everything has to come up to today’s code. That includes electrical, so the whole building gets rewired, and heating, so everything gets redone. Fire suppression alone, with a sprinkler system for all three buildings, would cost $1.5 million.”

In the section Stefanick refers to as “the bat cave,” visitors learned that there was still asbestos present, though it was deemed harmless as long as it was not disturbed.

“Anything in a 9-inch square is asbestos,” said Gary Erdmann, a former board member who served for 27 years.

Stefanick said some of the other tiles and ceiling also had asbestos.

“It’s in the glue they use to put it down,” he said. “It’s fine as long as you don’t disturb it.”

Stepping out the door, people noticed tuck-pointing issues as well as window ledges that were covered with concrete and sloping that is occurring with the 1969 north wing.

“The reason the window sills are covered with concrete is that the building is heaving so bad that the bricks were just exploding,” Stefanick said. “When they built it, they didn’t backfill it properly. See how it slopes and all the water runs to the building. You can see by the entryway how it slopes.”

Denny Petersen said he joined the tour to find out more about the facilities.

“I went to school in Ruthton, so I kind of know that building, but not (Tyler),” he said. “My kids aren’t in school anymore, but I work here in town and I’m interested in knowing more.”

The library and music room were highlights, showing spacious, well-kept up areas.

“The library used to be the elementary gym,” Erdmann said. “Then it became a library and then it came with computers like it is now. There’s another lab back here. The band room was built in 1995 or 1996 and the acoustics really help. It was worth the money.”

Outdoors, looking at the old junior high building, part of the original 1908 structure, there was an orange fence put up to keep people away.

“The things that are falling at the front are the lintels,” Stefanick said. “There are two missing and if you get up close, you can see how they’re all getting loose. That’s why the fence is there.”

Al Martin was displeased and asked when was the last time anyone did work to fix anything.

“It seems like they want a new school and that’s it,” Martin said. “In my opinion, the school board should go put their heads in the sand the way they’ve let this building go to hell. It’s terrible. It’s ridiculous.”

Stefanick said the custodial staff has only been able to do what they have to do to keep the building functional.

“I can’t help what happened prior to me being here,” he said. “But no matter how much money you put into an old building, it’s still an old building.”

RTR Elementary in Ruthton

Head Custodian Tim Malecha led visitors on a tour of the district’s elementary school, noting that he’d been in his current position for a year.

“This is the art room, where we’re working on the heater that sprung a leak in the closet,” Malecha said. “So this was the day to shut the boiler down and work on that stuff. All the rooms got cleaned and the floors got washed this morning — it was a perfect time for that, too.”

Former board member Terry Gordon said the building was built in phases.

“You’ll get to see the old part,” he said. “This is the more recent one. The gym was redone. It had a new roof and floor. That was done by grants about 12 years ago. This was under the five-year plan and then the new school board took over and they changed things.”

Gordon said the windows were new and that the cafeteria had been renovated about six or seven years ago.

“There was a bond issue out there to fix things up and they voted it down,” Gordon said. “The schools didn’t have any money when they were separated. When they came together, we had a good superintendent and he scared up some grants for us. Then we put money into these buildings.”

Erdmann said the consolidation took place in 2006.

“We were all separate districts before that and we worked as a pairing,” he said. “Now, Russell, Tyler and Ruthton are consolidated.”

Gordon said that after the bond issue was voted down, the board focused on upgrading and also getting rid of the asbestos in all three buildings. Erdmann said the cafeteria remodel was a wise use of taxpayers’ dollars.

One of the biggest challenges for the custodial staff — Malecha, Cindy Engbarth and Christine Groenhoff — is hauling equipment up the stairs. There is no elevator in the building.

“When you want to come up here and scrub the carpet, you have to drag everything up the steps,” Malecha said. “You have to carry it up. It’s not fun. It’s hard work.”

Tedious breakdowns seem to consistently take place throughout the building. Along with leaky stools and urinals in the bathrooms, Malecha said a recent water softener malfunction forced him to drain both boilers.

“I came in at 6 a.m. and the boiler had run all night,” he said. “I check the water meter and found that it had used 400 gallons of water — we typically use between 20-50 gallons a day. We have chores to do right away — we’ve got to get the rooms clean and ready for the kids — but we came back and it was still running.”

A professional was called and he found that the solenoid was full of beads from the softener.

“The softener had a crack in one of the baskets and let these beads out,” Malecha said. “It jammed us up and the boiler kept running. So last weekend, we had to shut the boiler down and drain it. Then we had to come in and drain the other one. If we didn’t do that, (the professional) said we would be fighting with it all winter long because boilers don’t like hard water and it had hard water in it.”

The teachers weren’t happy about being cold that day, but Malecha said fixing it the right way was worth it since the heat should be consistent throughout the rest of the winter.

Multiple visitors commented that the facility appeared clean and well kept up.

“It’s like anything, you have to keep it up,” Erdmann said. “You don’t let a brand new John Deere tractor go without changing oil once in awhile. Upkeep is all part of the business.”

Paul Erickson, who was on the Ruthton School Board for 16 years, said he’d like to see the district do something on a smaller scale but yet still be good for the communities and kids in the long term.

“I don’t think that’s been weighed out enough yet,” he said. “I think there’s a group that sees the building is shot in Tyler and I feel they’re not taking other things into consideration. There’s nothing wrong with this part of the building. It could be used another 30 years and just maintain it and upkeep it. You build a new building and in 20 years, you’re going to be doing upkeep to that one, too.”

RTR Middle School in Russell

Head custodian Lori Taveirne gave tours of the Russell facility, which was remodeled in 2011 after a July 1 storm ripped part of the roof off.

“There was water running down the stairway, so a lot of rooms were redone and there’s new flooring,” she said. “That was part of the insurance. We had wood flooring and because of all the water, it was buckling. They had to rip it all up, pour cement to level it out and then put tile down.”

The roof was also redone after the storm came through.

“It’s got a rubber membrane,” Taveirne said.

The middle school building is three stories high and does not have an elevator.

“I feel like that’s our biggest disadvantage,” Taveirne said. “When the storm went through, they actually contemplated putting an elevator in, but they passed on putting the money into it. It makes it tough for us when we have to carry our floor scrubber up to the third floor. It’s a lot of steps and it’s heavy equipment.”

In the science room, the lab tables are new.

“The wood ones were replaced because of all the moisture,” Taveirne said. “They got moldy because it got hot after the storm came through.”

Taveirne said all of the asbestos was removed after the storm as well.

“We don’t have any in our building anymore,” she said.

Last summer, all new stainless steel cupboards and countertops were installed in the cafeteria. The wooden ones removed were brought up to the art room to use for storage.

“We also have a walk-in freezer, a reach-in freezer and two stainless steel fridges they use,” Taveirne said. “The kids have a salad bar every day. We also have microwaves here for the kids who have sack lunches.”

Across the hall is a weight room that is open to the public.

“It was all through a grant,” Taveirne said. “We have quite a few people who come in here and use it in the mornings and evenings. We lock the hallway door at night, so they can’t roam around the rest of the building.”

Taveirne said the middle school gym also gets used a lot, whether it’s after school or evening practices for basketball, volleyball, wrestling or even baseball if it’s a rainy day.

Last summer, LED lighting was installed, making the facility much brighter.

“They’re brighter and electricity-wise, they don’t use as much. They also last longer, so we’re not having to replace all the fluorescent bulbs.”

Some windows were covered with plywood on the outside to prevent drafts. Overall, Taveirne said the boiler system works extremely well.

“I normally turn the heat on about 6 o’clock when I get here in the morning and around 11:30 a.m. or noon, I turn them off,” she said. “I changed some air vents and re-calibrated all the thermostats this summer, which has made a big difference in getting things regulated correctly in each room.”

As part of a three-year effort, every classroom now has its own air conditioning unit as well.

“Air conditioning in every classroom is huge,” Grant said. “It makes the kids more comfortable and when they’re more comfortable, they’re more apt to learn.”

More storage is at the top of the list for Taveirne and fellow custodian Craig Oye.

“Russell is in very good shape,” Dale Wieme said. “All the buildings need up-keeping. I feel they denied it a little bit the last few years because people are wanting a new building. I hope they keep all three going. We don’t always need new.”

Final thoughts

Gordon said just building all brand new doesn’t seem logical to him.

“There’s parts they can save, especially over in Tyler,” he said. “Even if they build what they want today, they won’t have the square feet. They won’t have the ballfields, but they’ll want them sooner or later. This is just the beginning. If they think that’s going to be it for 25 years — the life of the loan — they’re wrong.”

Several tour guests said they were concerned about the agricultural landowners who would carry about 84 percent of the financial burden of the effort.

“If we were to go with a new building, the farmers represent 84 percent of the bill,” Erdmann said. “And a $35 million bond is going to cost close to $56 million with the interest. Ag2School Credit will help, but it’s not the full 40 percent because it’s only for tillable acres. The land with a house, machine shed or waterway does not get counted.”

Erickson said with the lack of economic prosperity in the three small communities, the bulk of the burden would definitely fall to the farmers.

“I think we can all agree that the Tyler building isn’t up to par,” Erickson said. “But you can go in and knock all that stuff out of there and build a new building there, and you could do it for a lot less money. (The $35 million bond) is a big load to ask people to support without looking at more options.”

Cricket Raschke, Tyler City Council member elect, said the lack of elevators at two of the facilities was a big concern for her.

“I’m actually for a replace instead of a remodel,” she said.

Neil Thompson is also leaning toward having all students in one facility.

“I’m in favor of the whole works,” he said.

While he admits he’s a Russell native, Grant firmly believes building a new school in Russell provides the best opportunity for drawing open enrollment students.

“It’s right on a major highway with Highway 23 and intersecting with Highway 91 here,” he said. “You have Lake Wilson just down the road, along with Balaton, Lynd, Marshall and Arco — I mean there’s a lot of these smaller towns around here that you’d hope to draw open enrollment from. In Tyler, you could draw some from Lake Benton, although they’ve had pretty strong ties with Elkton (South Dakota).”

Regardless of what is decided, Grant hopes the plan is solid and that whichever two facilities are left with the old infrastructure, something is able to be done with them.

“It would be a shame to see nice buildings go to waste,” he said. “It would be sad to see them sitting empty and deteriorate.”

Erdmann said he believes it takes time in order to make the right decision for the district.

“There’s not simple answer,” he said.