More classrooms approved as plans advance for new Blanding Elementary School project

by David Boyle
News Director
Members of the San Juan School Board approved three more classrooms for the new Blanding Elementary School at their latest meeting.
During the February 14 meeting members of the San Juan School Board approved add-ons to increase the size of the new Blanding Elementary School.
The decision came after input from the community survey and meetings with community and educator committees.
The draft plan for the school is similar to other recently built elementary schools in the district, with the building making the shape of the letter E lying down.
The main entrance to the building by the school administrative offices, a kitchen and cafeteria in one corner, and a gym in the other with spectator capacity of 600 people on one side.
The building draft plan includes three wings leading to classrooms at the ends and one in the middle of the building. Additional different classrooms, special education rooms, and multi-use rooms would also be included in the building. 
Behind the building would be a fenced-off play area including hardscape and grass areas as well as locations for playground equipment. Drop-off and parking areas would be located in front of the school in the current draft plans.
The school board was presented with four different options to add additional space to the elementary school, with the board ultimately choosing options one and four creating three additional classrooms at the school.
At the meeting school board business administrator Tyrel Pemberton shared the #1 concern shared by survey respondents was related to growth. 
“They felt that the current design didn’t have room for growth or that there wasn’t enough classroom space in the design. The current elementary school design that MHTN provided had the same number of classrooms as what the current school has.”
Although classrooms in the new school would be larger than the current Blanding Elementary School, teacher input included that additional classrooms would help accommodate larger than normal classes as well as provide for space for additional programming including science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) projects.
The board reviewed four options for additional classrooms in the building, approved were options 1 and 4.
Option one will move the gym further to the south and relocate the teacher lounge to be in the interior of the building. The move will repurpose the 921-square-foot teacher lounge into a classroom and create a slightly smaller 781-square-foot lounge instead.
The board also approved option four which will extend the length of the middle wing of the building to add two additional classrooms.
The combination of options one and four were recommended by Blanding Elementary educators to increase space in the building.
Other options considered were to add two classrooms to the north wing of the building, with another option considered to add a single classroom to the middle wing of the building.
A rough estimate for the additional costs of the additions was about $500,000 for each classroom added, for a rough estimate of an additional $1.5 million for the project.
When asked by the board Pemberton shared that the district could absorb the costs of the additions but also noted that there are other capital needs in the district. Still Pemberton said that in addition to community input, the recommendation was for additional classroom space for the building, but at what amount was left to the board. Pemberton added the construction costs are cheaper today than they will be in the future.
“It’ll be cheaper to add additional space as we’re going through the construction process initially than to tear down a wall and add classrooms on to a certain area of the building at a future time.”
Driving the need for additional space is the unknown of population growth, which can be difficult to forecast. 
According to the district’s annual October 1 enrollment report, Blanding Elementary School has had a 10-year average of 526 students enrolled in Kindergarten through 5th grade. The lowest enrollment over the 10-year period was 502 in October 2023, with the highest enrollment at 549 in 2017. Enrollment from 2018-2022 was give or take seven students from the 10-year average.
Those figures do not include pre-school enrollment numbers.
District Superintendent Christine Fitzgerald shared that while the proposed school had been designed for growth, additional classroom space could serve the school population. Fitzgerald shared that the building was designed to have four classrooms per grade level which would accommodate 25 students per classroom, for the average class size of 100 students per grade, with additional space in the classrooms and amenities including the cafeteria and gym space allowing for an estimated growth of up to 90 more students in the school. 
Fitzgerald did add that the additional classrooms could serve as overflow for those larger than typical grades as well as classroom space for other programming at the school.
Pemberton outlined the financials of the project, noting that the estimated cost of the project had increased from Junes estimate of $47.5 million to $49.5 million.
Pemberton also shared that the district capital funds to start the year included $26.8 million, as well as $12.4 million in building reserves, as well as the $20 million in funding from the state. Pemberton noted that the district should be able to cover the new Blanding Elementary school, the $5 million entryway safety upgrades at four district schools and the $2.5 million district transportation facility needs without going in the red. 
Still, Pemberton noted that additional capital needs would come forward including two presented at the meeting, those being the need to upgrade the 40-year-old playground equipment at Montezuma Creek Elementary and replace the 25-year-old HVAC system at Navajo Mountain High School. The board and staff planned to discuss those capital needs in more depth in March but rough estimations for those projects were around $750,000 combined.
Additionally, as part of a school report ARL Principal Ryan Palmer shared the school lacks adequate space for students, and added there are plumbing issues at the school with toilets backing up regularly.
Members of the board approved the addition of three classrooms via options one and four with board members Nelson Yellowman, Merri Shumway, Steve Black, and Nan Barton voting in favor. Board members Lori Maughan and Colleen Benally voted against. 
Maughan and Benally both commented before the vote.
Maughn saying “I agree with adding more space, but I also agree with Tyrell with the needs within this district also. So I feel like, (...) for me, a compromise with adding space, but still meeting capital needs within this district.”
While Benally added “I have to agree with that because if we’re not looking at the disgusting issues at ARL on top of capital with the school. We can compromise, it might not be a lot but we can compromise with two classrooms at BES as well as take care of the capital.”
At the meeting members of the board also heard about two other concerns brought up most often in the community survey regarding the new Blanding Elementary School.
Behind the need for additional classroom space Pemberton shared other most common survey concerns included the size of the gym, as well as the request to simplify the design of the school to save costs, such as unifying the color of flooring material, rather than the proposal of different colors in different wings of the building.
Pemberton added, “We won’t save millions by simplifying those elements, but we will look at what we can do to cost areas in different ways.”
At the meeting members of the board also approved their meeting calendar for the 2024-2025, with monthly meetings planned as well as reports from different schools and district organizations throughout the year.
At the meeting members of the board also approved the school trust lands report. The required annual report included how funds received from the state Trust Land Administration (TLA, formerly SITLA) were used over the past year. 

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