School board votes to delay bond issue for at least a year

Unanimous vote to hold off while sending a better message

[ By Mark Reaman ]

The Gunnison Watershed School District board voted unanimously on Monday, August 9 to not pursue a bond issue on the 2021 November ballot. While expressing some disappointment in the results of a mail survey concerning the possible $83 million bond, the board generally agreed it would be prudent to wait a year and spend the time in better communicating the successes and needs of the school district.

The board had been talking for more than three years about the need for a mill levy increase to pay for a Crested Butte Community School expansion given the fact that enrollment has exceeded capacity at the campus for several years. Money for improving security at every district facility and expanding classrooms and athletic fields in Gunnison were also part of the possible bond proposal.

Consultant Paul Hanley of Beyond Your Base walked the board through a mail survey that garnered 672 responses or an 8.6 percent response rate. While not a scientific poll, basically he indicated that the results showed a split between those in favor of a bond and those against. But he said that drilling down to details showed a much more robust opposition to the idea at this time.

“There was a strong awareness of the issue but the arguments against the bond tested much stronger than the arguments for it,” Hanley explained.

School board member Dave Taylor suggested that the survey might have been too long and complicated to entice more people to fill it out. Hanley said it was in line with other similar surveys and the complexity provided nuance not available on a simple yes-or-no question. He said the return rate fell into expected norms.

“This might be a rhetorical question but at what point do you make the observation that people who should be most concerned, in this case the people in Crested Butte, are undermotivated,” asked Taylor. “Given their response rate why didn’t Crested Butte show up when they had so much to lose?”

“It is pretty common. We see it all the time,” said Hanley.

Referencing survey results that indicated 27 percent of respondents graded the district with a C, D or F, the board was a bit shocked.
“Those numbers reflect a national issue with education rather that our school district,” said Taylor. “Those grades are driven by national news and things like critical race theory versus our specific district.”

“I was also surprised at the grades the district received indicating we aren’t doing that well,” said board member LeeAnn Mick. “We were open during COVID.”

“We need to differentiate ourselves from what is going on nationally and what is happening at the Gunnison Watershed School District,” said Taylor. “We need to communicate a clear message of what we’re doing.”

“We definitely have to find a way to get the information out that we are excelling,” said board president Courtney Fullmer. “And make sure that message is countywide.”

Taylor suggested that perhaps the need to push the message that second homeowners would pay a big portion of the price tag for school improvements needed to be emphasized. “Maybe we’ve been deficient in communicating that people who don’t send their kids to the schools will pay for most of the building,” he said. “Let people know we can soak the rich to get it done.”

“I disagree entirely with that,” said board member Tyler Martineau. “That issue is a community divider. It would be a mistake to push that. Just look at last year and the divisiveness that came when second homeowners were told they couldn’t access their property. They contribute a tremendous amount to support the community. Given last year’s divisiveness and viciousness I don’t think we need that discussion. It would be a huge mistake.”

“Hopefully you recognize some of the cynicism of my comments,” clarified Taylor. “My point is that Gunnison County votes 60 percent Democrat and they like to soak the rich. They would like that second homeowners would pay for the school.”

Mick made a motion to put a bond issue on the upcoming 2021 ballot. Taylor seconded the motion.

“My reasoning is that I remember when it took us three times to pass a bond issue to get a high school,” she said. “It is a very different community now but part of me says to do it because I think it will take three times to pass.”

“It’s about more than just expanding facilities,” said Hanley. “The goal of the process is to build the long-term taxpayer trust and not just address facility needs. The voters expect you to listen to them.”

Taylor mentioned that the often strained relationship between the two ends of the valley also comes into play. “There is also the historical dynamics between Gunnison and Crested Butte,” said Taylor. It’s not always a good relationship. The question is what does Gunnison need for this to pass? I agree that Crested Butte needs more space but to just ask for that is not politically feasible.”

“In these sort of situations you need to spread the wealth,” agreed Hanley. “If it was just a bond for Crested Butte, it won’t pass. Gunnison will want to see some benefit for their schools as well.”

“I also want to say that the mayor of Crested Butte characterizing the Crested Butte school as representative of a trailer park was tone deaf,” said Taylor. “If you want Gunnison support you need to modify that perception. As a school bus driver I see racial messaging embodied in that comment as well.”

Fulmer said the mayor was referencing the new modular classrooms being installed at the south end of the campus.

“As a school district I think we can do a much better job of communicating with the community,” said Martineau. “And I will be voting against this motion. COVID took a lot of energy that left little time for anything else. Hopefully we are mostly beyond it. But we can now praise that success and the results we accomplished. But I think in the coming year we can spend energy on better communication with the community. Paul’s survey shows pretty clearly we aren’t ready to take this bond to the voters.”

“I agree with what Tyler is stating,” said board member Anne Brookhart. “We need to work on the community and hopefully in a year they will be telling us a different story.”

Taylor said it could be beneficial to take the year to better hone their message. “That’s the direction the task force steered us,” he noted.
Fulmer said that while borrowing money was cheap at the present time, the time for a bond was not the present. “We have a responsibility for the public’s money and the rates are great right now, but the timing isn’t there. There isn’t enough time between now and November to refine the message. We need more discussion and more interaction.”

The board voted 5-0 to not approve the motion and will wait at least a year to present voters with bond issue.

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