The Ottumwa Courier

June 9, 2014

You want how much?

By MARK NEWMAN
Courier staff writer

---- — OTTUMWA — It's back to the drawing board after bids for a new school office were more than expected.

"We were disappointed," said Ottumwa Superintendent Davis Eidahl. "Costs came in about 40 percent higher than the estimate."

The surprise was announced at Monday's school board meeting. At just under a million dollars, the original $950,000 estimate hardly seemed comparable to the tens of millions spent to build Liberty, to renovate Douma and to add a wing at Evans. But tack $300,000 onto the $950,000, and a $1.25 million office is more than the superintendent is comfortable asking the board to approve.

"I'm going to recommend we table [any vote] until we've had a chance to go back to the architects and find out where [that extra cost] is coming from," Eidahl said.

"Have we used these [architects] before?" asked school board member David Weilbrenner.

The district has used Frevert-Ramsey-Kobes of West Des Moines for Liberty, for Douma and for Evans. Indian Hills used them to design the Rural Health Education Center at their Ottumwa Campus. These guys are good, Eidahl said.

Weilbrenner asked if the design firm is always that far off target? The superintendent told him they're usually much closer; it may be that there's more room for error or bid fluctuations when it comes to guessing what contractors will ask for a smaller project.

One citizen wondered if perhaps the plans were too extravagant. Ed McDowell of Ottumwa addressed district leaders during the public hearing portion regarding the project Monday.

"I don't begrudge anyone a nice place to work," said McDowell. "But what's wrong with [this] current building? You've vacated a number of buildings on the south side. Have you considered any of them?"

McDowell said like many residents, his property taxes went up last year. And residents do watch to see how the district spends taxpayer funds.

"Where is this money coming from?" he asked.

The current administration structure houses administrators, like the human resources director, the superintendent, the business office as well as their support personnel.

Eidahl addressed some of the same concerns, which he said are foremost in the minds of the school board members.

The current building, as well as the vacated buildings, need costly renovation if they are to continue serving.

"They're money pits," Eidahl said.

And when it comes to operating costs, housing 12 office workers in a school built for 400 students is not an efficient use of funds.

In fact, those buildings being vacated were left behind partly because they were not cost effective, the superintendent said. The money to build a new office would come from the one penny, statewide sales tax.

Each district gets a portion of those millions to use solely for upgrading, maintaining or constructing school buildings. As for taxes going up, Eidahl said board members have done their part; as more funding came in from other sources, the board has voted most years to reduce how much they are asking of Ottumwa citizens.

Over 10 years, not only has the school district not asked for more per thousand dollars in valuation, they've decreased their "asking" by $3 per thousand.

Maybe, acknowledged McDowell, but our taxes are going up. And the money the district spends, whatever its source, he pointed out, is taxpayer money.

To follow Mark Newman on Twitter, check out @CourierMark

After 13 years on the Ottumwa School Board, board president Carol Mitchell will be stepping down July 1.