St. James rendering

An architectural rending of the front exterior of the expanded secondary school, with the athletic addition on the right. Courtesy MLA Architects

ST. JAMES — After cutting four projects from the facilities funding request last fall, lower than expected construction and interest costs are allowing a few smaller additional building enhancements at St. James schools.

St. James Public Schools leaders celebrated a ground breaking Thursday eventuating nearly $24 million in improvements to all three of the district's schools.

Site preparations are under way and construction of expansion projects will start later this month, said secondary Principal Karla Beck, who is a member of the oversight committee for the project.

Construction of the expansions at Armstrong, Northside and St. James Middle/High School will continue through next school year and will be completed by spring. Renovation work will occur next summer.

Secondary school

A substantial expansion to the east end of the shared middle and high school will house athletic facilities. There will be a three-court gymnasium, new locker rooms, a wrestling gym, a separate entry and a lobby with restrooms and concessions area. The gym will have an upgraded sound system and lighting and in addition to athletics will be used for large events such as concerts and graduation.

Beck said she's most excited about an addition to the west side of the building that will include three new science labs and an art room.

A small addition adjacent to the theater will be used as a dressing room and storage.

Portions of the secondary school also will be renovated, including the pool, locker rooms, middle school music room, media center and computer lab. Half of the existing gymnasium will become a gymnastics gym during the gymnastics season.

The main entrance will be reconfigured so it can be locked during the school day to require visitors to check in at the adjacent office.

The school football field and running track will be replaced next summer. The track is beyond its life expectancy and crumbling, Beck said. A city storm sewer project will require the football field to be torn up and replaced. Football games during early fall 2017 will likely have to be held at alternate locations, according to the district website.

Northside Elementary

Three additions will be erected at the district's elementary school, which will expand to include kindergarten. An addition on the east side of the building will have eight classrooms, a media center and computer lab.

An addition on the west side of the building will create a new band room and expand the kitchen and the cafeteria that also serves as a second gymnasium. The fifth-grade band program was eliminated a few years ago due to lack of space; it will be reinstituted once the expansion is complete in fall 2017.

The school office will be moved into an addition at the front of the building and a new front entrance will funnel visitors into the office.

Outside the school, a new parent drop-off and pick-up driveway will be added.

Armstrong School

A new secure entrance and a new drop-off drive circle will be added at Armstrong School, which is the district's oldest facility.

The school is now home to preschool and kindergarten students and community education programs. Kindergarten will move to the expanded Northside Elementary in fall 2017.

Add-ons included

Beck said design fine-tuning and construction preparations have progressed without a hitch. 

Two cost savings are permitting inclusion of a few extra improvements that district leaders weren't initially certain could be afforded in the $23.9 million budget.

The first good news came this winter, Beck said, when a low interest rate was received on the bonds to fund the project. On May 31 the School Board accepted bids from construction contractors that were lower than anticipated.

The upgrades will include new lockers and a new gymnasium floor at Northside Elementary and renovations to the kitchen at the high school/middle school. At the secondary school, the wall between the cafeteria and the lobby area will be removed and lounge seating will be added to create a more open and flexible student commons area.

Depending on how much funds are left over, backrests might also be added to all or a portion of the bleachers in the new secondary school gymnasium.

Scaled-down improvements

The school improvements will be funded by a voter-approved property tax increase.

After the sixth building referendum failed in February 2015, district leaders scaled down the proposal by $6 million and put a seventh request before the voters last November. The reduced request passed by an almost 2-1 margin.

The eliminated proposed projects were all at the secondary school: expansions adding a new 500-seat auditorium and new band and choir rooms, classroom additions to move fifth grade from the elementary school, and moving and improving the tennis courts.

Altered schedule

School calendars are altered to create a long summer next year to allow more time for the renovations and moving in to the new spaces.

Students will start and end school earlier than usual next school year and and start the 2017-2018 school year later than usual.

The first day of 2016-2017 is Aug. 22 for secondary students and Aug. 23 for elementary students. The last day is May 12. The 2017-2018 school year will start on Sept. 11 for secondary and Sept. 12 for elementary students.

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