Year-in-Review 2023: K-12 projects, start-up to finish

Year-in-Review 2023: K-12 projects, start-up to finish College Community School District’s new Prairie Creek Intermediate School was completed in the summer of 2023 (photo courtesy of Hall & Hall)

2 months, 1 week ago

Carl A. Nelson & Company was busy with school construction — and project celebrations — all over Iowa in 2023.

By Craig T. Neises | Carl A. Nelson & Company

For Carl A. Nelson & Company (CANCO), 2023 will be looked back on as a year of celebration. Of ribbons cut and ground broken. Projects ending and projects beginning.

Among K-12 clients, our team celebrated the start of projects including elementary and secondary school improvements for Grundy Center Community School District in Grundy Center, Iowa; additions and renovations at Washington High School in Washington, Iowa; and the start of renovations at Burlington High School in Burlington, Iowa — the first major update to the school in its 54-year history. Work was completed in 2023 on an athletics and classroom addition for the Van Buren County Community School District in Keosauqua, Iowa, while Phase I of the Burlington High School project — an extensive upgrade to HVAC systems — was in commissioning at year’s end.

“(CANCO) working with the contractors, working with the design team, being on-site every day, I just think helped to make things go smoother. I think problems were solved in a manner that was within the vision and the scope of the project, but also cost-effective. I think that was really helpful to us.”

The year’s biggest celebration, though, was reserved for the year’s biggest educational project: a ribbon-cutting and open house for College Community School District’s new Prairie Creek Intermediate School. The 189,000 SF school with a construction cost of $44.5 million opened to much excitement in August. Led by CANCO in the role of construction manager agent, the project was built with a 1,300-student capacity in grades five and six, and is part of an overall restructuring and expansion program that is meant to accommodate future enrollment growth.

Dr. Douglas Wheeler, superintendent of College CSD, said an estimated 6,000 new housing units are expected to be constructed in the district, which is located on the south side of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, over the next decade.

“We’re in a really good place to where people can locate in our district, and they can experience the amenities of Cedar Rapids,” Wheeler said. “They can experience the amenities of Iowa City. They can experience a good school district with lots of programming and opportunities.”

Once ninth-grade moves out of the district’s middle school building, following CANCO-led renovations of the former Prairie Creek building, there will be capacity for 600 students in each grade. Currently, student numbers average about 400 to 450 per grade level, he said. The type of housing being built in the district is expected to feed the greatest enrollment growth in the fifth- and sixth-grade range, making the new Prairie Creek building critical to meeting that growth.

Renovation of the former Prairie Creek building, which is adjacent to Prairie High School, will create synergies for the ninth-grade and alternative school programs that will be housed there by providing access to resources in the grade 10-12 building, Wheeler said. The remodeling also includes reconstruction of the music department, and updates to the high school career and technical education area. Moving ninth-grade also will address overcrowding in the middle school, which has a 1,200-student capacity in grades seven and eight, but today has enrollment of more than 1,300.

Coming late in a multi-building renovation and expansion program, and given the scale of it, Prairie Creek was approached as a first-time construction management project for the district in order to take advantage of factors such as change order management during construction, value engineering during pre-construction and more.

The front entrance and playground of the new Prairie Creek Intermediate School at College Community School District in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where Carl A. Nelson & Company was construction manager agent. (CANCO photos)

After CANCO came on board as construction manager, working with designers from OPN Architects, was when cost-saving ideas like lowering the roof height by a foot started to show significant savings in the documents that were being prepared for bidders. That one change, Wheeler said, saved the district an estimated $1 million. Wheeler credited the entire project team for working together to deliver a project that met the district’s budget goals without sacrificing educational goals. In all, value engineering options added up to more than $2.5 million on the project.

Other benefits, he said, include increased opportunities for local contractors to bid the project, improvements to on-time project delivery, and less hands-on management of the construction process by district staff.

“I can’t be on the site every day,” Wheeler said. “My CFO can’t be on the site every day. And my buildings and grounds person can’t be on the site every day. So that on-site coordination and supervision of all the contractors, and that sort of making sure that every day those decisions are being made, is one of the reasons we went with construction management.”

With pandemic closures in full swing by the time CANCO was brought on board to lead the project, which pushed the entire pre-construction process into a series of online meetings, Wheeler said having a construction manager was even more beneficial.

The CANCO team is currently engaged in a construction manager agent role for College CSD leading the renovation of the former Prairie Creek Intermediate School, which is to have a new life as home to the district's ninth-graders, as well as students in the Delta alternative program. (CANCO photo)

“I think the construction management process helped us get through the pandemic,” he said, in terms of workload related to marketing the project to bidders, managing supply chain issues during the bid phase, and day-to-day management of the site and prime contractors.

The payoff of using construction management agency also was experienced on the back end of the project, Wheeler said. Timelines were met and the building when it was turned over to the district was clean and only a handful of final touches were still to be checked off when students arrived to open the school year.

“(CANCO) working with the contractors, working with the design team, being on-site every day, I just think helped to make things go smoother,” Wheeler said. “I think problems were solved in a manner that was within the vision and the scope of the project, but also cost-effective. I think that was really helpful to us.”

Wheeler recommends school districts consider using construction management agency delivery of large new building projects and complex renovations that could exceed the capacity of the district administration and facility management team to oversee on a daily basis.


Carl A. Nelson & Company has been providing design-build, construction management and general contracting services since 1913, with educational projects completed across Iowa. To learn more about our services to K-12 and other educational clients, visit, or call (319) 754-8415.

Other K-12 projects in 2023

Completed: Van Buren County CSD athletics and classroom addition. (CANCO photo)

Underway: Washington CSD high school additions. (CANCO photo)

Underway: Fort Madison CSD Pre-K to 6 additions at middle school campus. (CANCO photo)

Underway: Grundy Center CSD high school addition. (CANCO photo)

Underway: Mid-Prairie CSD Middle School additions. (CANCO photo)

Underway: Burlington CSD high school renovations. (CANCO photo)