Task force weighs school expansion options

Still struggling with needs and wants

[ By Kendra Walker ]

The task force looking at possible school district facility expansions and determining whether to put a school bond request on this fall’s ballot met for the second of four meetings on April 8. The group looked at the original $98 million Plan A design and associated costs, along with a slightly reduced Plan B option for $89 million. While many were still undecided on which option to pursue, the general consensus was that if a bond issue is introduced it would be better to rip the Band-Aid off and go with the full $98 million Plan A concept. However, the board is still struggling with “needs” versus “wants” and how to align those with the community’s values when it comes time to vote.

The estimated timeframe of a bond is around 25 years, barring an earlier refinance and pay-off. Plan A costs $98,661,140, and if passed by voters would cost homeowners approximately $25.22 per year per $100,000 of the home’s actual value ($252 annually for a $1M home) and $102 a year for each $100,000 of commercial space.

Plan B is about $9 million less at $89,685,774. This would cost taxpayers $20.30 per year per $100,000 of a home’s value ($203 for a $1M home) or $82 a year per $100,000 of commercial value.

Plan B’s reduced scope is based on items identified as something that would be nice to have, but not critical and could be taken out, explained Brian Calhoun of RTA Architects. The biggest items eliminated from Plan A to get to Plan B include: lower priority maintenance items; Gunnison High School’s maker suite renovations; Crested Butte Community School’s elementary maker space/music room two-story addition; CBCS budget for furniture, fixtures and equipment; and size of the parking lot expansion for the district sports field at the Gunnison Community School campus. However, Plan B would reduce the CBCS expansion plan by more than $3.5 million.

Calhoun and district superintendent Leslie Nichols also reiterated the district buildings’ need for improved safety and security at the entrances. The rearrangement of the administrative offices in each building was perceived by some as a “want” rather than a “need” at the prior task force meeting. Nichols noted that the current schools were designed right before the Columbine High School shooting occurred in 1998. “Security and school shootings have increased since then,” she said. “This office location problem is really because of the timing of that design. We weren’t thinking in that way in 1998.”

CBCS growing pains
The task force basically agreed that addressing the Crested Butte Community School’s capacity issue is the highest priority, but struggle with how to focus on those needs while appealing to voters valley-wide. Based on the November 2019 voter turnout, Gunnison area voters made up 58 percent of the population, with 29 percent in Crested Butte, 6 percent in Mt. Crested Butte and 7 percent unclassified.

The Crested Butte Community School currently allocates 136 square feet per student, the smallest area of any of the schools (GCS is 172 sq. ft./student, GHS is 273 sq. ft./student). The proposed Plan A design adds 40,000 square feet and would increase the CBCS number to 143 square feet per student.

“I’m surprised by the small size to the reduction,” said Crested Butte mayor Jim Schmidt. “If we’re going to do this you might as well go for it, if that’s the difference, go for the bigger amount. We know the schools are crowded up here but that seems such a disparity that the biggest reduction [in Plan B] would be to the Crested Butte school. It’s not going to do anything to bridging that gap of square feet per student. What happens in three or four more years when we hit 1,000 students up here and all of a sudden we have to go back for another bond issue? I’d say go for the bigger amount because I don’t think the reduction is going to sway people.”

RMBL executive director Ian Billick agreed. “I’m really concerned. I want to be careful to not come back in 7-8 years and there’s a good chance we’re going to be full. We have to really think about this project within the context of growth in the community school up in Crested Butte. It’s brutal to be up-valley and have our kids stuck in closets…the kids in Crested Butte are probably going to be in closets for a long, long time. The Gunnison Valley is critical but you also need to run big (voting) numbers up in Crested Butte.”
“The concerns about long-term planning are real in Crested Butte,” said Nichols. She also noted that the district is actively working at trying to secure property in the north end of the valley for a future, additional campus.

Tapping the earth
While the current concept designs propose HVAC system improvements with variable air volume (VAV) with reheat conversion, county manager Matthew Birnie urged RTA Architects to reconsider adding geothermal exchange systems to the buildings. Calhoun explained that even though the energy cost savings are more, a heat pump with geo-exchange was more expensive in the estimated payback (100 years), and that those geo exchange systems are most efficient in the summertime when the schools would be empty. Birnie disagreed with the analysis and explained that the county had recently implemented geo-thermal in three buildings. “The payback in the courthouse for our system is 12 years, I can’t imagine it taking 100,” he said. “Geo exchange works perfectly for heating as well as cooling. This is the way to heat and cool buildings in the Gunnison Valley. I really think that the energy efficiency, especially with geothermal and especially in your most inefficient building, should be revisited.”

Billick suggested breaking out the costs programmatically – security, capacity, improved programming, fields, energy, etc., rather than by campus.

Gunnison County Library District executive director Drew Brookhart agreed, “I wonder if it makes sense to just look at entire portions of the project not being addressed…rather than trying to address all of the above on a smaller scale. Address whatever the community sees as the highest need after the polling has been completed. It seems the highest need is obviously centered on the Crested Butte Community School and really getting an understanding of how much support there is for handling that throughout the valley regardless of the other improvements.”

“I do agree with Drew’s point and that is to look at the overall themes and needs that resonate most with our community and if we find ourselves with the need to reduce, we go with those buckets,” said Met Rec district manager Hedda Peterson. “It would be good to get insight on whether the community wants to spend right now.”

Gunnison city manager Russ Forrest also noted that there might be additional bond issues on the ballot this year coming from the fire district and the county. “That’s something we’ll have to think about as we look at cumulative impacts to our homeowners.”
“The issue we’ll have to overcome is why 2121?” said Gunnison mayor Jim Gelwicks. “Second, what’s the balance between up valley and down valley because both sides become quickly jealous of each other.” Gelwicks noted the community currently seems to have a reasonably favorable attitude for the school district, with students having been able to safely attend school in person this year during the pandemic.

Birnie suggested that a target cost should be set in order to prioritize the scope and make decisions based around a hard number. “The capital expenditures were estimated to be in the $53 million range and this is more than double that,” he said. “A lot of people look at that top line number and say whoa, they doubled it.”

“School safety is much more pressing than people realize. I think that can appeal across the whole valley,” said CBCS teacher Talley Nichols. “I also think seeing the schools at both ends of the valley as an economic driver is tremendously important. I do think we need to really, really make an appeal to the entire valley on why we need improved programming and the idea that we need to build our workforce. My students fill a huge gap every summer with the workforce needs.”

Roanne Houck weighed in, saying, “I think it’s going to be a hard sell to the commercial property owners, we’ve been hit hard with taxes over the years. We should create a PR campaign around the importance of education and what it puts back into our community.”

“This community has a long track history of supporting education needs within our community. They have shown up time and time again,” said county commissioner Jonathan Houck. He said that while the expansion plan is not necessarily Plan A or Plan B, it’s also still a different time for folks and maybe the bond issue should wait until 2022. “The clout of COVID is thinning but it has not completely gone away.”

The task force will meet again on April 29 to further discuss and determine what to test district-wide with the community to see what the support looks like for a possible bond measure later this year.

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