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MACCRAY opening doors for a look at building 'dilemma’ (with video)

Boilers at the MACCRAY East elementary school have been retrofitted to burn natural gas in place of fuel oil. The heating system has gone beyond its expected life span, and replacement parts have to be specially built when components break down. Tribune photo by Tom Cherveny 2 / 2

CLARA CITY — Furnace rooms holding steam boiler systems that look like they were built to power the Titanic and have gone years beyond their life expectancies.

Buildings that are two and three times larger than needed for the number of students they hold.

The upper floor of a building closed for 25 years by order of the fire marshal.

These are the sites. MACCRAY interim Superintendent Loren Hacker is the guide.

“I want people to understand the dilemma the board is in,’’ said Hacker last week as he led reporters to the MACCRAY East and West elementary schools in Raymond and Maynard, and the high school in Clara City.

He’s offering the informal tours to any interested group.

Voters in the MACCRAY district rejected a $20 million bond issue to build a new elementary school as part of the high school campus by a 1,067 to 733 tally on Jan. 7. The vote doesn’t end the need to do something to address the buildings needs of the district.

“We’ll get by, but there will be a point in the system,’’ said Hacker when asked how much time the district has until a decision of some sort must be made.

There are 232 students attending the East elementary in Raymond, originally a K-12 school with the space for roughly four times as many students. There are 147 students attending West elementary in Maynard; again, the original K-12 buildings could accommodate many more.

There are 283 students attending the high school in Clara City.

Both the West and Elementary schools are heated by steam boiler systems — upgraded from burning fuel oil to natural gas — but otherwise operating beyond their expected lives.

Twice a day, holidays and weekends included, someone is in the boiler room “to make sure everything is going,’’ said Curt Dirksen, MACCRAY East building maintenance director.

Portable electric heaters have kept two classrooms in the West elementary warm for over a month of subzero weather. There are no longer replacement parts available for the steam boiler systems’ components in either elementary building. It takes three or more weeks to build the specific part needed when a failure occurs, Hacker said.

If the district is to keep the two elementary schools operating, major upgrades to the heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems will be necessary.

The district invested more than $7 million last year to replace the HVAC system at the high school.

More than 20 tons of metal was hauled out of the building; one valve alone weighed 800 pounds, according to Greg Thissen, maintenance director for the building. He said the hot water system replacing the steam boilers has increased efficiency, dependability, and comfort in ways that are hard to exaggerate. Each room sets its own temperature, humidity levels are controlled year-round, and carbon dioxide monitors hold back on heating or ventilation in unoccupied areas.

By all measures, the East elementary building in Raymond poses the biggest challenges, according to the superintendent. Its third floor was closed 25 years ago by a fire marshal’s order and now shows the consequences of those years without use.

The building’s ventilation system is built atop it. The best solution may be to remove the third story, said Hacker, but he’s not sure how it could be done. “It’s a head scratcher,’’ he said.

Built into a hillside, classrooms are located on three different levels in five buildings that comprise the overall structure. Underneath are dirt-floor tunnels holding steam pipes and wiring. Water seeps into the tunnels during the spring and early summer and has to be pumped.

Ceiling panels in parts of the building are stained by the high humidity levels experienced during the wet months of the year.

In the winter, when the steam boilers are going full blast, the humidity in the classroom air drops to a point that rivals the driest deserts.

A four-inch diameter water line supplies water to the building. A larger line would be necessary if a sprinkler system to serve the entire facility is someday added.

Yet it’s what happens outside the building that can worry the superintendent the most. The lack of a parking lot raises safety concerns as parents pull up in private vehicles, and buses line up on a crowded street for the students who emerge from these doors.

The situation is not that much better at the high school in Clara City either, according to Hacker.

In contrast, the West elementary in Maynard offers ample space inside and out for safety needs. Its interior is very much the “traditional school’’ with all classrooms located on one floor in wings allowing for segregation by grade, he noted.

But its heating system is an Achilles’ heel that cannot be ignored indefinitely. And the abundance of building space is as much a liability as an asset. Projections show no growth in enrollment on the district’s west side in the years ahead.

At this point, a majority of the school board members have voiced opposition to making large investments to upgrade the elementary buildings. They do not believe the district can afford to operate three buildings at separate locations. They point out that measured on a per-student basis, MACCRAY’s costs for utilities and operations and maintenance are among the highest in the region.

“Do we take the mountain to Mohamed or Mohamed to the mountain?’’ asked Superintendent Hacker as he discussed these issues on the tour.

Voters in the original Raymond and Maynard districts cast the no votes against the bond issue. Board members have acknowledged that the vote reflects their desire to maintain the schools in their communities.

Board members expressed interest in creating a facilities committee including school board members and representatives from the three MACCRAY communities to examine the district’s options.

The superintendent believes the district will have to make some decision about its building needs. “Something is going to be done eventually. When that is, I don’t have an answer,’’ he said.

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

(320) 214-4335