Education

Iowa City schools' facilities plan 3 years ahead of schedule

Building frenzy started after voters approved record bond issue

Mann Elementary School Principal Julie Robinson talks Tuesday about the playground improvements as the addition and renovation of the existing building is set to open for the next academic year this fall in Iowa City. “I feel like now we have a space that matches the innovation and the creativity of our staff,” she said about the project. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
Mann Elementary School Principal Julie Robinson talks Tuesday about the playground improvements as the addition and renovation of the existing building is set to open for the next academic year this fall in Iowa City. “I feel like now we have a space that matches the innovation and the creativity of our staff,” she said about the project. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
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IOWA CITY — As a few teachers navigated gleaming hallways and moved into their new classrooms, Mann Principal Julie Robinson pointed to brand-new features in the renovated 102-year-old school.

It was gutted and rebuilt, she said, walking past a tech-savvy learning lab, the music room’s recording studio, an enormous gym and storm shelter addition.

Construction of the school, which serves about 230 PK-6 students in downtown Iowa City, finished on time this summer — “the busiest summer this district has ever seen,” Facilities Director Duane Van Hemert said. A dozen district schools received major updates and additions.

The building frenzy in the Iowa City Community School District is the result of the largest school bond in Iowa history, $191.5 million, approved by voters in 2017.

The bond financing buoyed the district’s master facilities plan — which is on track to be completed three years early, in 2021.

“No delays,” Van Hemert said. “But a lot of hair-pulling and a lot of sweat.”

MAP: Click on a location to find out how it changed over the summer

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Updating schools ahead of schedule means more students will be able to experience those improvements, Superintendent Stephen Murley said, while saving the district money.

“Kids only get one shot at a grade level,” he said. “So if we weren’t done three years early, some of those kids would have left that building in that time.”

While Mann will open to students Aug. 23 with grand new spaces, Robinson said the work also gave the building some much-needed amenities.

The school now has a secure entrance, air-conditioning and a wheelchair-accessible playground structure.

“Before, we had a very creative, very innovative staff, and we did amazing things, but our building just looked like a rundown, frumpy kind of place because it was 102 years old,” she said. “I feel like now we have a space that matches the innovation and the creativity of our staff.”

Murley said the accelerated timeline for district facility work let it avoid inflation on construction costs and save on bond interest — funds the district and school board can stretch for other projects.

“We’ll go to the board to see what they’d like to add,” he said. “We should be able to build more than we originally scoped.”

Retirement coming up

As the end of the district’s 10-year facilities plan approaches — with Van Hemert’s 70th birthday — he said he will retire next July.

“I just couldn’t leave until I had this thing done,” he said.

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Van Hemert joined the district seven years ago and has made a 115-mile commute from Des Moines most days since. In retirement, he plans to drive another 115 miles east to Bellevue, where he is building a house for him, his wife and his 94-year-old mother.

By July, he said, the district should have seven major facilities projects left: at Wickham, Shimek, Garner, Horn, Borlaug and Lemme elementary schools and Northwest Junior High.

Design work for those projects — all including an addition except Horn, which will be renovated — is underway.

He’ll leave those final pieces to the district to finish but said he has faith leaving it in the hands of his staff.

“We couldn’t have done it without our employees. The custodians, the carpenters, the plumbers, electricians, everybody, our grounds crew,” he said. “They’re the ones that make it work. I’m just the lucky guy that gets to conduct the orchestra.”

Learn more about a dozen projects from this summer:

Liberty High School: An athletic complex — including a baseball field, tennis courts and a soccer field — is set to be completed this month. A 500-student addition still is in progress and is expected to open in 2021. (It was originally planned to open in 2024.)

West High School: In phase 2, West High School will open this school year with upgraded heating and cooling systems and all new windows. The school also will have an expanded art room. The high school, in phase 1, received new wrestling and basketball facilities.

Tate High School: The district’s alternative high school will not host students or staff for the first six months of the school year. They will relocate to the former Hoover Elementary building on E. Court Street while the district adds classrooms, a gym and a secure entrance.

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City High School: Miron Construction was recently awarded a $27 million contract to add a new gym, wrestling room, cafeteria and a common area to City High, as well as renovate and add air conditioning to parts of the building. The project is expected to take two years.

Grant Wood Elementary School: A complete renovation of Grant Wood Elementary started this summer. Parts of the building will remain off-limits this school year, and modular, temporary classrooms will be on-site to accommodate students and staff. The school will get an arts and music room additions.

Kirkwood Elementary School: A complete renovation of Kirkwood Elementary started this summer. Parts of the building will remain off-limits this school year, and modular, temporary classrooms will be on-site to accommodate students and staff. The school will get classroom and music room additions.

Mann Elementary School: Mann Elementary will open with a complete renovation and an addition this fall. Its students and staff were relocated off-site during work and will return this month.

Lincoln Elementary School: Lincoln Elementary will open with a complete renovation and an addition this fall. Its students and staff were relocated off-site during work and will return this month.

Grant Elementary School: A brand-new elementary school, named for Christine Grant — the University of Iowa’s first women’s athletic director — opens in August.

South East Junior High School: South East Junior High is in the middle a two-year project, and a 10-plex of temporary classrooms will remain on campus this school year. The junior high is getting new science rooms, a new library and media center, a secure entrance and air conditioning.

Alexander Elementary School: Because of growth, a four-classroom addition was made to Alexander Elementary this summer.

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Shimek Elementary School: The district’s home school program used to be located in the Theodore Roosevelt Education Center. The district opted to shut down the aging building in December, and space for its Home School Assistance Program will relocate to modular units on Shimek Elementary’s campus.

North Central Junior High: North Central will open with an expanded kitchen and cafeteria, an expanded media center and several new classrooms, science rooms and fitness rooms.

l Comments: (319) 398-8330; molly.duffy@thegazette.com

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