School and town on the verge of a not so neighborly squabble

In a small town your neighbors sometimes know too much about one another and remember too much from past indiscretions. There is longtime history, mistakes made, slights perhaps inadvertently given, that sometimes last longer than they should.

As a nosy neighbor, I am noticing what might be the beginning of one of those situations that results in two good neighbors, the town and the school district, grating on one another and getting into a tiff based in part on a previous incident. As a good neighbor I think it important to at least make them and the other neighbors aware of what is happening.

The early conversation is forthright and honest and that is appreciated. Basically, Gunnison School District superintendent Leslie Nichols let the Crested Butte Town Council know on Monday that while the district appreciates being good neighbors, they really do not like the idea of going through the BOZAR review process and don’t plan on doing it again. But the town contends they must if the district decides to expand the school on the current site, whether it is for the upcoming modular classroom placement or for a bigger, more permanent expansion.

Under state law, school districts are exempt from that local review. But ten years ago the school and the town signed a contract that might make that exemption null and void. Leslie said the last time the school expanded and BOZAR got involved, it cost the district money that the staff and board felt would have been better spent on classrooms instead of fancy false fronts and interesting roof lines. She said the nasty aftertaste from that situation hasn’t completely gone away.

The council members didn’t respond to Leslie on Monday. Instead they held an executive session to speak with their attorney and discuss the status of the current Intergovernmental Agreement (IGA) between the town and the district.

Leslie told me Tuesday that the district’s lawyers have said the clause in the IGA requiring the district go through BOZAR applies only to the 2009 expansion and not any future one. The town attorney disagrees. My observation is that when the lawyers start getting involved, the warm glow of neighborliness tends to disappear faster than a character on Game of Thrones. And that money for classrooms that Leslie lamented was lost on outside finishes last time will instead go to the lawyer’s European vacation. Just saying.

Look, the idea of the school and the town having a strong relationship is important. I told Leslie after the Monday meeting that her comments frankly raised my eyebrows. I remember the tension and acrimony that came in 2009 during negotiations of that last IGA and it wasn’t pretty. That was then and things have changed.

My immediate reaction as an interested third-party neighbor who doesn’t want to see good people needlessly squabble is that the school district is taking a misstep by rejecting a process that is ingrained in the community where the school is located. The school, however, is not just a neighbor but it is in the house. In this case, the school is sort of living in the entrance foyer since it is located at the front door to town. When the school was initially proposed for that location I wrote how that made a good statement about the community in general. It still does. The Crested Butte Community School is a valuable piece of this community.

I’ve also seen the town step up to help with the school’s Safe Route to Schools project and this summer the town is tearing out the track around the soccer field at the request of the school district. The school administration and board has listened to concerns from the Crested Butte community over a potential cell tower location on top of the school. Those are good neighbor actions and I have a lot of respect for the people on both sides of this spat.

The built environment of Crested Butte is one of the hearts of the community in which this growing school is located. While many scoff at the BOZAR process and requirements, most appreciate the finished product. The board should remember that it is the Crested Butte Community School and not the Colorado State Cinderblock Place of Learning. Where students learn has an impact on how students learn and it should reflect their home. What the place looks like actually matters, so to dismiss town rules as superfluous minutia that don’t have to be followed is an insult to its neighbor.

The bottom line is that I hope these two good neighbors don’t go down the rabbit hole of lawyers and courtroom confrontation. This is not a slam on the school—but if the school board doesn’t want to abide by the house rules of the home it is basically living in, look for another place, which I’ve always said is probably a good idea no matter what, given the migration of a lot of families down valley. But that is a longer-term discussion to be had. In the meantime, in a small town, it is better to talk out disagreements rather than draw hard lines in the sand and fight it out with lawyers. Respecting the sometimes quirky values of a partner would be the neighborly—and smart—thing to do.

—Mark Reaman

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