$20,000 evaluation of buildings OK'ed, but board wants to keep its options open after that.

The Crookston School Board this week approved a resolution that will have the district paying performance contractor Johnson Controls $20,000 to evaluate the three school buildings and swimming pool in areas like their heating, water, air, mechanical and electrical systems, deferred maintenance, and roofs and walls.

Even if the board eventually says thanks but no thanks when Johnson Controls, upon completion of its evaluation, pitches a multi-year project with the school district to upgrade and maintain the building's many systems, the district will still be on the hook to pay the contractor that works with districts and other entities across the state $20,000.

Board members on Monday, before unanimously approving the resolution, wanted to make sure that the district wouldn't be on the hook with Johnson Controls for anything beyond the $20,000. Although in the end the board might approve another long-term, multi-million project with Johnson Controls, there appears to be a significant amount of trepidation among board members to enter into such a large commitment with the contractor, which completed a 10-year agreement with the district a few years ago and would like to ink another one. (In the years since the 10-year project expired, Johnson continued providing some maintenance oversight.)

Board members are well aware that the swimming pool is in need of a new roof and that ventilation issues inside are damaging the building from the inside out. They also learned – thanks to a presentation by "building envelope" specialists The Garland Company earlier this month – that Crookston High School needs a new roof, too.

"There's some hesitancy with Johnson Controls," board chair Keith Bakken said, stressing that the board, once it has the findings of Johnson Controls' evaluation in hand, will have many options at its disposal, including hiring a different contractor to do the work. "They've been overseeing the pool for 10 years and we're still dealing with these issues," Bakken added.

Superintendent Chris Bates recommended that the board approve the $20,000 assessment of the buildings' systems. The board's approval came on the heels of two presentations by Johnson Controls in recent months, and another conversation with representatives of the firm at the recent Minnesota School Board Association Conference.

"This is a big area, with a number of areas we need to deal with," Bates said. "This doesn't tie us to any particular contract with anyone; it's just an analysis of where our buildings are at, in terms of systems' efficiency. ...We need to know about these issues, and these are people who spend every day in school buildings."

Whatever the board eventually decides to do, Bates continued, the entire scope of the work could be put up for bids, or it could be handled in piecemeal fashion. "This will give us an idea of what needs to be done and when, instead of us doing a bunch of other things and then realizing a few years down the road that we didn't do something we should have," he said.

Bakken said his chief concern is a component of Johnson Controls' plan that relies on revenue from an operating levy referendum set to expire in 2014-15, beyond that expiration date. "I understand that things need to be done, but they were clear about extending that levy," he said. "We told the taxpayers during the last levy process that they'd get some relief when that other one expired."

Bates said interest rates remain historically low and that the district could refinance some existing debt while still potentially providing tax relief to district residents. Either way, he stressed, it's early and the board has numerous options available to it. "Whatever comes out of this, it will be presented to the public and discussed at length," Bates said.

Johnson Controls bases its business model on systems and efficiency improvement projects financed over a number of years with school districts and other entities. The idea is that the entity finances the project over a period of years and then pays for it with savings reaped by reduced energy and utility bills resulting from the improvements implemented by Johnson Controls. In the district's previous contract with the firm, the district paid around $200,000 a year for a decade and, with the budget extremely tight and annual spring reductions becoming the norm in those days, the board at that time breathed a sigh of relief when the final $200,000 payment came off the books.

Still, board member Frank Fee said, it's worth $20,000 to get an updated analysis of the condition of the four buildings. "I think we all have some concern over Johnson Controls and the amount of money we've paid to them over the years and what we've gotten in return," he said. "This is $20,000 to find out what needs to be done in our buildings, but I don't think we're giving cart blanche to Johnson Controls at all. It would be nice to know exactly, whether it's good or bad, what needs to be done from a company that's familiar with our school district. I want to know, and I think district residents want to know."

Bates said building needs are all part of needed long-term planning that the board must commence with, with the goal of coming up with strategies the "community can warm to." Everyone knows buildings, especially buildings in northwest Minnesota, need quality roofs, Bates continued. "We're very proud of our buildings and no one wants to see them fall into disrepair," he said. "This gives us a chance to maybe do some things and reduce the tax burden on our citizens. The community wants to see us look after the buildings they've paid for."