CBCS school expansion proposal tied to traffic issues

Could a roundabout with a specific school exit help?

[  By Mark Reaman  ]

While acknowledging the immediate need for significantly more classroom space at the Crested Butte Community School, residents living near the school said it was also imperative to address the overall town traffic issues associated with the entry intersection and streets near the school at Sixth Street and Red Lady Avenue in any expansion plan.

Gunnison Watershed School District superintendent Leslie Nichols presented an overview of a potential property tax increase to pay for a district facilities expansion on Thursday, March 17 at the Crested Butte school library. The top priority of the district is adding classroom space at the CBCS since the current facility is overtaxed and six modular classrooms are being used this year. Expanding the current campus to its maximum potential would accommodate 1,000 students from the current 750-student capacity. This year, CBCS is teaching 755 students which for the first time in many years is significantly fewer than the previous year. Other priorities with a new district-wide facilities upgrade include making schools safer and more environmentally sustainable.

Nichols said asking for a property tax increase is basically like asking voters to approve a mortgage for making improvements to district facilities. She said the school board is seeking public feedback on how best to move forward and questions on whether to expand on the current CBCS campus or build elsewhere, what to include, and how to best partner with the town of Crested Butte all need to be considered.

“The student growth over the last 20 years in Crested Butte has been phenomenal. This is the first year (in many years) we have seen a decline in student numbers,” said Nichols explaining that the 2021-22 student population decreased by 38 from 793 to 755 from the 2020-21 school year. “We are projecting next year to be flat but we expect growth at some level to continue but maybe not at the rate we’ve seen.”

Nichols said the ongoing maintenance needs to be considered in any expansion as well and pointed out the CBCS roof is nearing the end of its expected life.

“That will not be a cheap fix and we have a grant pending to pay for about 30% of the cost of the approximately $2 million project. Our capital reserve funds will cover our portion of the project. Though it’s a very competitive grant cycle, I’m optimistic about receiving a BEST grant for this roof project. Maintenance needs to be proactive. That costs a lot less than emergency maintenance,” Nichols said. “All our inspections indicate we are in pretty good shape, but we have to stay on top of it.” 

Nichols explained that school administrators and architectural consultants have trimmed down the expansion project from what was being considered a year ago. Still, with inflationary pressures, the costs have gone up and the two recent options being floated will still cost more than $75 million. “We are doing what we can to reduce the project and make it as feasible as possible,” she said. She anticipated that if a bond issue is approved by voters this November construction would go into the fall of 2024.

“We understand the issues that come from living near the school and that’s all fine. Our concern is more long-term with the community impacts of increased numbers,” said Missy Ochs. “All the vehicles coming down the hill at the start of the work day that is the same time as the start of the school day. And the year-and-a-half projected construction timeline is in reality probably closer to two-and-a-half or three years so it would be 2025-26 when it is really dialed in. The multifamily units being planned all over the North Valley will certainly impact the school.”

“There is no question there are huge unknowns with potential housing projects like the North Village in Mt. Crested Butte and the Whetstone project south of town,” said school board president Tyler Martineau. “That would add a lot of kids. Is the proposed expansion adequate is a question. The cost of building a new high school off the current campus was estimated to be incredible. Two years ago we decided to expand to full capacity on the current campus but we need to keep questioning that assumption.”

“I believe there is so much potential here at the current campus,” said secondary school principal Stephanie Niemi. “And we have to do what is affordable. People have been through a lot over the last two years and we need to be kind to our community.”

“We need a thorough study of possible impacts and to think about unintended consequences,” said Bill Wolfson. “I support the larger expansion right now but we should look at the broad impacts that come with it. We should be looking hard at the traffic studies for example.”

“I agree we should be looking carefully at the traffic and parking data we have,” said Jennifer Hartman who suggested the studies be posted on the school and town websites.

Jimmy Faust advocated for another look at a potential traffic roundabout at the Sixth and Red Lady intersection. “They actually work well in other places,” he noted.

“That’s a possible solution,” said Nichols.

“We are looking at traffic holistically within town for the next year-and-a-half,” added Crested Butte town manager Dara MacDonald. “In the case of a roundabout we have to consider the entire Sixth Street corridor. What happens at Sixth and Red Lady impacts the whole Sixth Street corridor.”

“We agree that it’s not just a school traffic issue but a big thing for the whole town,” said Krista Hildebrandt.

“The traffic issue is so in our face and impacts both locals and tourists,” said Ochs. “In our mind the school should have its own entrance which would be possible with a roundabout exit. Any expansion needs to look at the whole entrance to town. If the town is looking at traffic for the next year-and-a-half why push a $98 million bond this year?”

“Lots of simultaneous work is being done,” said Nichols. “We can’t wait for everything to be done before doing something.”

“It got to the point last year that we were starting to panic about if we would have enough space for all the students,” said Niemi.

“We definitely need more space,” said CB elementary school assistant principal Kathryn Long. “It gets old with having kids sitting in the hallways as part of their school day.”

“We don’t know where we would put kids if we get 60 to 70 new students,” said Martineau. “Every year we wait, the potential crisis of where to put students gets worse. Traffic is a serious issue. We understand that. So is hiring bus drivers and substitute teachers. The fact is what choice do we have if kids show up at the door. We will teach them. There are a lot of problems but we feel there is no choice but to move forward with an expansion.”

“I think you could get more buy-in for a bond issue by addressing the broader issues,” said Ochs. “If people see better improvements at the Sixth and Red Lady intersection they would be more supportive.”

“Everyone’s chief complaint is that intersection,” agreed Faust. “There are solutions to make it better. I’m not sure you can get broad support for the bond approval if that is left out.”

Wolfson suggested considering out-of-the-box ideas like making some streets one-way during the extremely busy and congested times or having the local marshals actually direct traffic and implement traffic control measures during the start and end of the school day. “To pass a tight vote we need to look at the short and long-term solutions.”

“Maybe having a long-term plan and sharing progress that will be forthcoming would be useful,” suggested Ron Weber.

“So, we have a challenge,” concluded Martineau. “We know we need a cooperative partnership with the town.”

“No one is saying to not move ahead,” emphasized Wolfson. “We all want it to be successful.”

“It will be a huge lift,” admitted Nichols. “To do it right is why we are having the discussion. This has been incredibly valuable feedback.”

The goal is to further discuss and vet the various expansion options between now and the end of summer. The school board is then expected to take a vote on whether to pursue a November bond issue vote at its August meeting. 

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