School district bond issue will go on upcoming fall ballot

$95M to address safety, overcrowding, maintenance 

[  By Kendra Walker  ]

The Gunnison Watershed School District school board voted unanimously on Monday night to place its $95 million bond issue on this November’s election ballot. If passed, the bond would help fund district-wide facility improvements, including addressing safety and security, overcrowding, and maintenance for long-term sustainability and savings. 

The $95 million plan would cost residential property owners $183.51 a year per $500,000 in assessed value. For businesses, it would cost $765.75 a year per $500,000 of commercial assessed value. 

Superintendent Dr. Leslie Nichols outlined the bond’s key priorities, which include safety/security, overcrowding and maintenance/sustainability. 

All school entrances will be improved to include best practices and industry standards for safety and security. “Our entries were designed before Columbine. While our schools are safe, the safer we can make them the better with evolving industry standards,” said Nichols. Safety related improvements include secure entryways, parking and traffic changes and playground updates.

To address overcrowding, Crested Butte Community School would be expanded to include 13 new classrooms, new administration areas and a larger cafeteria, among other improvements. 

“Crested Butte’s growth has more than doubled in the last 20 years,” said Nichols, noting the student population of 347 in 2000 compared to this year’s 755. CBCS is designed for 750 students and is at capacity, and the school has added six modular classrooms and repurposed storage closets for learning spaces. Nichols noted that this expansion would tie into improved safety at CBCS as well. “Having kids move in and out of classrooms in that manner is more difficult to manage and keep safe than having everyone under one roof, which is what we’d prefer.

“Our school district is not finished growing,” she continued. “Given the long-term future of this valley, we’re not finished. It’s a very desirable place to live and more families will be choosing to live in our beautiful valley with kids as they are able.”

Field improvements, Pathways school expansion and reconfiguration of STEAM and CTE spaces would take place in Gunnison.  

Maintenance upgrades would be made to all facilities to help with long-term efficiency and costs, including mechanical system controls, and HVAC upgrades at Gunnison Community School. “When we’re proactive with maintenance it costs less than emergency maintenance,” said Nichols. “This is a big part of the bond project that we feel really committed to.”

Nichols explained that GWSD has approached taxpayers for a bond initiative about every 10-15 years, and this bond addresses anticipated needs for the next 10-15 years. The last school district bond was passed in 2008. 

Todd Snidow of public finance practice, Stifel, noted that approximately 53% of the property taxes for residences and businesses in the county come from people who are not primary residents.

“Fifty-three percent will be paid by people who don’t live in Gunnison County,” said board member Dave Taylor. “If we did not have that tax base to help us pay for these schools, that burden would be double. I believe this particular tax increase for somebody who has a second home is very nominal to their lifestyle and their budget. Somebody who owns a $2 million house is going to pay approximately $750 more in taxes. I think that group of taxpayers in our community are happy to help improve our community by paying that much more in property taxes.” 

“We’re all getting hit in the pocketbooks,” said Carmen Pankratz during public comment. “Who are we to judge and say that, oh well they won’t mind paying another $750? We’re all paying that price. Please look at getting more creative…I just don’t understand the urgency given the current economic situation.”

Neil Watko asked the board to consider giving the voters a choice between two separate bond issues, the first for safety and security and the second for capital improvements. “You’re expecting families to vote for a complete package,” he said, noting inflation, high gas prices and other rising costs. 

“I don’t think I’m going to be able to support a bond issue this year,” said Rebecca White. “I have neighbors who had to leave the valley because they couldn’t pay their property taxes…My concern is the cost to each individual homeowner. I look at what you want to do, I totally understand your ask…13 classrooms seems like a lot for Crested Butte. I question that.”

However, the board received many comments in support of the bond as well.

“I feel that so much due diligence has gone into this process. A lot of people have been around the table for months on end, even a few years,” said Margaux Helvey of the Crested Butte PTA. “I respect the deep amount of thought to be focused on the essentials…I feel very strongly that as a district, as a community, we have to recognize there are a lot of needs our schools and our community has right now. This [bond] is minimal compared to the future of our children and how they will learn and how we can support our staff who work hard every day to teach them.”

Brian Pugh, who is part of the bond steering committee, said, “I’ve participated in a lot of the outreach, and overwhelmingly folks have said we need to do this. I really hope the board realizes and our community realizes this is something we actually have control over. Having looked at each and every project and reasoning, it’s pretty obvious that these things go hand in hand…If we put these projects off another year, another two years, they will cost more. These are the most critical projects.”

“We’ve put some hard work into this and the voter deserves the right to weigh in,” said Taylor. “I am absolutely in favor of putting this on the ballot. It’s a reasonable ask for the future of our kids. Would I be saying that if it’s $2,000, probably not. I just look at the cost per household to be a reasonable ask. We know where this money is going. This money has to be spent on constructing quality facilities for our students. It’s ours to improve our facilities without pretty much any outside involvement from the state. I like controlling our own destiny.”

“It concerns me greatly, the economic burden this will put on some families. This is not the best time from an economic standpoint to put this on the ballot with inflation and economic uncertainty,” said board president Tyler Martineau. “But we have spent five years working very hard on this. We have really identified the highest priorities, the things we think are absolutely essential for this community. I feel it is time to put this to voters.”

“This is a matter of safety and future success of our community’s children and I think that’s priceless,” said board member Anne Brookhart. “I’ll be voting yes tonight and I’ll be voting yes in November.”

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