Friday, August 23, 2019

Re1J school district looks at its future and finances

Facilities master plan to be voted on next month

By Katherine Nettles

The Gunnison Watershed school district is looking hard at future planning for its facilities and trying to anticipate the speed and ramifications of continued growth at the Crested Butte Community School site as well as how to keep up with maintenance costs throughout the district.

$50 million in eventual projects have been identified district wide, with $30 million alone going to address  the needs of a growing CBCS. For now, though, the district is running triage.

In a school district work session on Monday that addressed budget updates and an overview of the master plan, it was determined a fortuitous alignment of approximately $3 million in expected surplus funds and $3 million in recommended priority projects match up well for some initial improvements to the schools of Gunnison County.

Re1J school district business manager Stephanie Juneau began the work session by explaining how a combination of funded pupil count increases amounting to $234,000, unanticipated forest reserve funding of $500,000 from the county, E-rate funding, an EZ grant and a lead testing grant, as well as underspending, have contributed to a surplus in the general fund.

Juneau said in the quarterly financial summary that revenues are about $1.4 million higher this year than last, in part because the district received its annual rural schools funding earlier this year. Juneau said the reserves are “sitting in the bank and earning interest.”

She said that at the CBCS, the increase in student enrollment for this school year brought in additional funds of $500,000 but did not trigger additional staff or classes. After covering the other associated expenses of more students, Juneau said that $200,000 remained, “almost entirely because of our increased pupil count this year.”

Juneau noted that overall, food service sales are down, so the district wants to look into that matter further and figure out why.

The future

The school board is scheduled to vote on approving the master plan at its February 11 meeting. Any public comments are due to the district by Friday, February 1.

Doug Abernathy from RTA architects reviewed the Re1J facility master plan at the Monday work session. The plan was developed through a collaboration between RTA Architects and a local planning assistance team formed by community members, parents and employees of the district, and it identifies priorities to consider in the next five to 10 years.

The four main areas of the district that were considered were safety and security, condition of existing facilities, education programs and community.

“We were in a unique position to look further down the road,” said Abernathy, who credits the district for being “proactively and efficiently managed” and allowing the master plan process to focus on evaluating strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats, and to plan ahead without needing to react to imminent crisis, as stated in the master plan document.

Strengths included: “highly engaged, dedicated, and qualified teachers;” “great district leadership;” strong support from parents and community members; strong academic and athletic programs; low student-teacher ratios; innovative programs; well-maintained facilities; an organized transportation system; “strong financial structure and accountability;” and the “healthy outdoor culture of the valley and [Western Colorado University]’s influence.”

Overall, the weaknesses identified were: funding shortfalls; lack of vocational programs; need for balance between arts and sports programs; community isolation; demographic achievement gaps; programming and scheduling challenges between schools due to distance; lack of implementation for new ideas; and the loss of some programs.

The funding shortfalls were for capital projects, teachers’ salaries, educational programs and for facility needs.

The district facility needs are extensive, amounting to an estimated $50 million to address insufficient lockdown security and insufficient indoor and outdoor spaces such as classrooms, art, science and STEM facilities, industrial arts, lunchrooms, auditoriums, athletic spaces, playgrounds, ball fields, track, a soccer field and parking lots.

Potential threats to the district’s success were the high cost of living making it difficult to attract and retain teachers, potential future overcrowding of facilities, school safety, out-of-date technology, and lack of land and resources to expand facilities.

A closer look at CBCS

Over the past two years, the district and independent demographer Shannon Bingham of Western Demographics have evaluated future growth.

They use the major indicators of births in Gunnison County, employment and unemployment rates, housing affordability, and job opportunities.

The CBCS campus was projected to add 28 students between 2018 and 2022, but it has recently added an average of 24 students per year—3.4 times the rate projected. The heaviest increase was at the CBCS secondary school, said Abernathy, and enrollment at CBCS increased by 30 students this year.

“If growth does continue at this historic rate, enrollment will increase by 96 students between 2018 and 2022, to 845 students total,” Abernathy predicted.

CBCS secondary school principal Stephanie Niemi spoke up about CBCS enrollment spikes that fall out of the predicted growth models.

“Each year, we look at the comings and goings of our students. As of January 7, between those who have enrolled for next year, we see an increase of 18 at the middle school and 18 at the high school. My concern is that we are seeing this in January… What happens when we get to June and July?” Niemi asked.

“Even though we’ve just registered nine new students since fall, I do … anticipate that the elementary school [enrollment] will be more or less flat,” said CBCS primary school principal Sally Hensley.

“The numbers in Crested Butte seem to keep going up, despite the numbers we have been forecasting… That’s interesting,” said school board director Tyler Martineau.

Hensley agreed. “There are extenuating circumstances that we are dealing with here and they seem to come up a lot.”

Niemi pointed out an increasing trend of many parents working outside of the valley, “where the income is not earned here in the valley but elsewhere.”

Ultimately, the master plan offered three separate options for CBCS: to add a new school facility in the North Valley; to add on to existing structures; or to update buildings and construct new, separate buildings on the existing campus.

“It was discussed, but there was really no solution for it, potentially building another school in another area of the community,” said Abernathy. “Feedback from the team and also from the community was to leave the campus on site and to increase the capacity on campus for the near term for Crested Butte. The other schools did not need to consider that because they don’t have the same situation of growth as Crested Butte.”

Based on this, deferred maintenance and also improvement projects on each campus were recommended, which combined added up to $50 million.

Since that cannot be funded all at once, however, the collaborative team created a deficiency list based on urgency, prioritizing life safety and building damage issues that could lead to school closures.

District-wide, if all deficiency items of every level were addressed it would cost more than $7 million. The most immediate improvements are about $2 million, primarily at Gunnison elementary and middle school. At CBCS, the immediate needs are for improvements to playgrounds, a parking lot, and roof repairs, amounting to $316,800 worth of items in the areas scored as most critical.

Juneau said with a few additions to the hit-list district-wide, the most urgent and more urgent projects add up to $3 million-plus. That number, she said, “is what is projected to be in our capital reserves at the end of this school year.”

Down the road, an estimated $30 million could be allotted for CBCS to create for more usable spaces and improve security. The site plan includes an interior addition of 31,775 square feet and a renovated area of 19,000 square feet.

The plan would also include improvements to parking lots and safe routes to school, removal of the outdoor track, and significant playground and playing field area improvements.

Beyond the hard construction costs, Abernathy said the estimates include soft costs like permits, design, landscaping, new furnishings, and unforeseeable impacts or challenges. He said at some point there will be a more significant traffic study beyond what they have done already, which will include highway impact studies.

A trigger plan is also recommended for CBCS, in which predetermined enrollment numbers cue a facilities master plan, or adding modular classrooms. At 850 students, the school would start to look at a bond measure. Abernathy condoned the trigger plan for providing a two-year timeline so that planning stages can occur, but warned, “Portable classrooms start to compromise the safety and security aspects.”

To see the full master plan go to the homepage.

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