Brent Bautz walks out of his office at Richardton-Taylor High School and points to the ceiling.
There, the school superintendent shows where brick is cracked, displaced and appears to be pulling away from wooden beams, some of which have large cracks in them.
The school building that houses the district’s 130-plus junior high and high school students is 55 years old and, Bautz and others believe, needs to be replaced.
“A lot of people, they don’t realize when you walk down the hall and you see that stuff,” Bautz said. “When people come here most of the time, it’s just for games. Of course we always want everything to look nice. People say, ‘Oh there’s nothing wrong with the school, it looks fine.’ But foundationally, we have some issues.”
Bautz said Wednesday the school district is in the early stages of discussing a possible $15 million remodel of the existing school, which would include tearing down the south wing and reconstructing a two-level building in its place, and an almost complete overhaul of other parts of the building.
The project, which would require a bond issue, includes adding a multipurpose gym that could double as a cafeteria and commons area, a new band and choir room, a remodel of existing locker rooms, and a new secured entrance near administrative offices.
EAPC Architects Engineers, a Bismarck firm, recently finished a 40-page assessment of the building and described its issues in plain terms.
“In general, the high school buildings have significant structural and foundation deficiencies that include life safety concerns,” the firm wrote in its executive summary.
The report also found multiple areas of the school out of compliance with Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Duane Zent, Richardton-Taylor’s school board president and an area farmer, said the board believes the plan to tear down the south wing and build a new structure in its place is the most cost-effective way of ensuring the school’s future.
“The board feels like we need to build a new building because our building in such bad shape that to pour more money into it, it’s going to be an unending project and we’ll still have an old building at the end of the day,” Zent said.
Zent, who graduated from the school in 1976 when the building was just 15 years old, said he remembers hearing the school was meant to last 30 years.
“These old buildings are not designed for any of this,” he said.
Why the need
Despite the oil slowdown in western North Dakota, Richardton-Taylor’s enrollment remains up compared to five years ago and it’s still steadily growing with nearly 300 total students.
There are 134 kids in the 7-12 building, and 164 kids in grades K-6.
Preschoolers, kindergartners and first-graders are in the old St. Mary’s Catholic School building in Richardton, which is leased by the district for thousands of dollars a month, and second- through sixth-graders are in Taylor. The junior high and high school students are in Richardton.
After a remodel, fifth grade and up would likely be sent to the Richardton school with the rest of the kids going to Taylor, which would also have air system improvements through the use of grants funding and mills, Bautz said.
“With the Taylor facility, structurally it’s fine,” Bautz said.
Richardton Mayor Frank Kirschenheiter said he’s a proponent of the remodel because the school system is a big reason why people choose to live in and around the community. Richardton-Taylor has a history of success in both its academic and athletic programs — notably Student Congress, speech, one-act play and, of course, football and basketball.
“Before the oil boom, the only draw we had to get people to town was that school system,” Kirschenheiter said. “It’s a school system that’s as good as any in the state and we have to keep it that way.”
However, Bautz, the board and city leaders like Kirschenheiter aren’t sure how taxpayers will react to the remodel plans, especially in the wake of the oil slowdown and current low ag commodity prices.
Alongside the school project, the city of Richardton may be faced with a large street reconstruction project in the near future that would require special assessments.
Minor street work in the town of about 550 people started three years ago, Kirschenheiter said, when cost estimates were much higher. Now that it’s easier to find engineers and contractors to do the work, the city wants to push forward with projects.
Like the school, the city’s streets were completed in the 1960s. Kirschenheiter said they’ve only had one chip-and-seal project done since.
“We don’t want it to be a burden on our taxpayers,” Bautz said of the proposed school project. “And that’s what’s so frustrating about it.”
Bautz and Zent said the school wants to have its plans for the remodel in order before they’re present to the public. No discussion for the project outside of regular board meetings has been set.
“We want to make sure … when we start going out and talking to the public that these are the right numbers, this is what we’re looking at, this is what it’s going to do to your taxes and that it’s a doable thing,” Bautz said.
Kirschenheiter, who said his grandfather told him “I paid for the school to educate you,” said he has similar feelings now that he’s in that position.
“It obviously is in need of repair,” Kirschenheiter said. “It has outlived its useful life in my opinion. Something has to happen.”