Task force evaluates school bond proposal

Wants versus needs…

[ by Mark Reaman ]

The citizen’s task force looking at the idea of putting a possible school bond request on the November ballot met for the first of four meetings on Thursday, March 25 and generally expressed some hesitation with where the process is at the moment. While safety issues at school entrances and improved energy sustainability were mentioned as possible priorities, the consensus seemed to be that the capacity issue at the Crested Butte Community School (CBCS) was a definite “need” and most everything else in the school board’s initial $98 million proposal was a “want.”

Led by consultant Paul Hanley of Beyond Your Base, the two-hour meeting focused on data describing current school district facilities and expected enrollment projections. While Gunnison school enrollment is expected to remain flat, the Crested Butte school is seeing about 25 new students every year and that is expected to continue. There are currently about 800 students at CBCS and the facility is built for a capacity of approximately 762. One modular trailer is currently being used as a classroom with two more planned for next year and school administrators say every space, including closets, are being used to teach students.

“The task force is meant to vet the various proposals that will be shared and tested district-wide,” said Hanley. “The task force will make a recommendation to the superintendent and school board after public input. The board will then make the final decision over whether to proceed with a bond issue.”

During last week’s meeting, some district administrators lamented the so-called “negative factor” that has cut the amount of money coming from the state to the school districts. The consultants presented a slide showing that about $20 million in anticipated funding has not flowed to the district over the years and that has hobbled programs and impacted salaries.

Task force member Ian Billick reminded the task force however that voters approved a mill levy override, known as Fund 26 in 2014 with the specific intent to make up for the state’s “negative factor.” Up to $2.5 million can be collected annually to make up for state funding cuts and the original intent of the ballot language mentioned maintaining existing class sizes, restoring programming and having money to maintain facilities. Billick, who is a former chair of the school’s Fund 26 committee, suggested that particular framing of the state funding issue would not be accurate.

$100 million price tag
Consultant Erika Everett outlined potential improvements to each of the school district’s facilities. They included things like providing security improvements at the entrances of the schools, purchasing better windows for the Lake school, improving playground surfaces, constructing more efficient vehicle drop-offs, improving restroom configurations and the like.

The school board released a $98 million concept proposal from RTA Architects in January that addressed many of the issues, including the construction of an addition to the CBCS on the current campus.

Billick asked how long a Crested Butte expansion would be good for. School board member Tyler Martineau said that the proposed expansion on the current site would increase capacity to 1,050 students. With about 800 currently using the facility and an expected average of 25 new students coming in per year, it would cover perhaps 10 years. Hanley said a school expansion would probably be ready about two years after a bond issue is passed.

School board president Courtney Fullmer admitted even with the proposed expansion, the CBCS campus would be at capacity sooner than anyone wanted, so the board was beginning to look at potential land to purchase to accommodate the next needed expansion.

Task force member and Gunnison city manager Russ Forrest noted that if the proposed Gunnison Rising subdivision is developed, it could add 1,700 residential units to the city and have an impact on schools as well.

“The Crested Butte campus capacity is a current significant issue,” said Martineau. “You can’t expand a school too far in the future. It is a lot to ask taxpayers to fund growth that may or may not happen. It is difficult to predict the future. It is definitely a valid issue for discussion and something to think about when the school district should go with these plans.”

Martineau said that deferred maintenance projects would also be part of the potential bond issue but admitted that priorities have not been detailed. “That is something to be pursued,” he said.

Task force participant Matthew Birnie agreed that it didn’t seem that there had been a “winnowing process” to dig down into priorities. “You are never able to build the ideal thing,” he said.

Hanley said a Plan A and Plan B would be presented at the next two meetings for the task force to consider. He said Plan B would not contain everything in Plan A but might be more appealing to voters.

“I would suggest it needs to be more nuanced,” said Birnie. “It seems there is a lot more work to be done on determining needs. There is a lot of room for more work.”

Hanley said a goal of the task force was to determine what should be shared and tested with the general community. ”The reality check is what voters will truly support as a Plan A,” he said.

Getting pricey in the north valley
Crested Butte mayor Jim Schmidt of the task force pointed out that there has historically been a north-south difference between what voters will support in the valley. North valley voters, he said, tend to be more supportive of school district tax increases. “For everyone, you need to be clear and open if you want support,” he said. “Priorities are important and obviously CBCS being over-capacity is a priority. And if most of the money being proposed in a bond issue is not for the expansion up here, there may not be support for it up here.”

”That is always a challenge,” said Hanley. “There are two separate communities and one community can’t get it all. You need to spread the love and at the same time respect the taxpayer. It is a tough tightrope to walk.”

“Valuations and taxes in the north valley are soaring and people are being impacted so be aware of that,” said Schmidt.

CBCS principals Stephanie Niemi and Sally Hensley both said the schools have seen significant enrollment bumps with more families moving to the Crested Butte area because they can work from home. “We are simply out of room,” said Niemi. “People are working in closets. We don’t have any more capacity next year without more modulars.”

Hensley noted that about 40 students chose to learn online this year because of the coronavirus so that made the current space overcrowded but adequate.

Hanley asked the group what seemed to be the highest priority of a possible bond issue and CBCS capacity topped the list.
“A lot of the initial ($98 million) proposal looks like ‘wants.’ They are good ‘wants’ and if we can fund them, then great,” said Birnie. “But the capacity issue in Crested Butte seems the top priority.”

“Security and health and safety issues across the district are important too,” said task force member and Gunnison mayor Jim Gelwicks. “But that will be a hard sell. Capacity obviously is an issue as well.”

Lacy Kaufmann, CBCS PTA president said the safety of students learning in modulars outside the main facility was a concern to be considered.

“Bolder energy efficiency measures could be a big selling point in the community,” suggested Birnie.

Task force member and Crested Butte town manager Dara MacDonald agreed with that thought. “But the capacity issue is compelling,” she said. “I hope we don’t have to add a lot of fluff to get votes for important things. It is a big number and we need to prioritize needs over wants. The lack of capacity is affecting the ability of the school to function at this point.”

County commissioner and task force member Jonathan Houck said voters need to understand how the school facilities contribute to the general community.

Task force member Roanne Houck noted that improving safe routes to school also benefits things like air quality in the communities by getting more kids to walk to school.

Hanley concluded the meeting saying that as a consultant who deals with school bond issues across the country, “the initial estimated costs to me seem reasonable.”

The next task force meeting is scheduled for April 8. It is at that meeting that task force members will be presented a couple of plans to consider for public distribution and feedback.

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