The Dolores school board voted Thursday night to forgo applying for the Building Excellent Schools Today grant this winter, giving the district more time to decide about the future of its school facilities.
Dolores School District RE-4A has been considering either renovating the existing school site or purchasing property for a new school to address the aging campus.
Staff members hoped to pursue a state BEST grant for the upcoming cycle. The application would have been due in January or February and would have required the community pass a matching bond in November.
The board decided passage of a bond was uncertain, and it opted to spend more time evaluating the options and soliciting community feedback. Board members also will seek to pass a bond before seeking the state funding.
“The consensus still is not there,” said board President Kay Phelps. “And this is a monumental decision for Dolores. And for us not to be fully prepared, fully informed, have the blessings of the community – we simply aren’t ready.”
The vote was 4-1, with board Vice President Casey McClellan opposing it. The meeting came a week after board elections, in which board positions were selected. Three previously serving board members will remain in their posts, with Kay Phelps as president, Casey McClellan as vice president and Lenetta Shull as treasurer. Newly elected Maegan Crowley will serve as secretary, and Clay Tallmadge will represent Dolores on the San Juan Board of Cooperative Educational Services.
Initially, the district looked to renovate the school at the existing site. In August, the Dolores school board approved a master plan to guide the BEST grant application that featured new elements, including a new secondary school and a more secure perimeter.
But this fall, engineers from the Colorado Department of Education, along with other officials and architects, evaluated the site and proposed moving the entire campus, largely because of the difficulties posed by the floodplain where the schools sit.
The district has considered land near Dolores for a school site, especially a few parcels above Joe Rowell Park.
The cost of Option 1 is estimated at $45 million, and Option 2 at $57 million. Regardless of the option, the district plans to seek the maximum amount from a bond, meaning the impact to taxpayers would be the same. The bond capacity is $8.2 million, which would amount to an additional property tax of $6.81 per month for a $100,000 home, Superintendent Lis Richard said at a recent community forum.
District staff members considered a BEST grant this cycle because it might be the last year the CDE will have two funding sources for the BEST grant, meaning that large-scale projects might not be funded in the future.
In an email to The Journal, CDE director of capital construction Andy Stine wrote, “For the last few years, we have been able to offer two types of grants: Cash and Certificates of Participation (COP). COP grants require us to be able to take on debt payments, and we are capped by law at a certain amount of total debt. There is a high likelihood that our board will elect to use all the remaining debt capacity available to BEST this grant round (applications due in February and awarded in May).”
The Dolores board decided in November to push the decision to December so the newly elected school board could make the decision and solicit community feedback. A survey went out to district voters and staff, with mixed results.
The district mailed 2,878 surveys to voters, with 81 returning as undeliverable. Of the 2,797 that were delivered, 682 people responded, for a response rate of 24%, according to Richard.
Of the 116 surveys distributed to district staff, 87 were returned, a 75% response rate.
Out of the nearly 700 voter respondents, 221 said they preferred to remain at the current site, 260 said they would like to build a new school on an alternative site, and 94 said the district should postpone the decision and seek another site. Forty-nine wanted to see other options or submitted comments instead.
Additionally, 135 respondents favored repurposing the current campus for a vocational-technical school, and 114 wanted to use the site for adult education; 149 wanted to find a closer property and build; and 180 opposed moving the campus under any circumstances.
Staff overwhelmingly supported building a school on a new site. Out of the 87 respondents, 69 wanted to acquire a property and build on it, eight wanted to repurpose the current campus, four opposed moving in any case, and two wanted to postpone the decision. Four were in the “other” category.
Lacking a consensus, Phelps asked Richard to report on the last paragraph of her staff report, which summarized her conference call with the master plan architect, the district’s grant writer and CDE engineers.
“If we choose to stay on our site and stick with our master plan, we may not get funded through the BEST grant,” Richard said.
Their suggestion was to forgo this BEST application cycle, spend the next year solidifying a plan and potentially a new location, seek a bond passage in November 2020, and then apply for the 2021-22 grant cycle if the bond is secured.
Most board members agreed to wait.
“We’ve opened up to the idea of community input on this plan, by seeking the idea of alternative properties and whatnot,” Tallmadge said. “And I would hate to see us move forward on a plan that isn’t going to get the bond’s public support.”
Crowley said some items in the master plan are not fully developed, and added that it felt like a waste of resources to pursue the grant before feeling confident the bond would pass.
McClellan disagreed, though. He wanted to move forward with the current master plan approved in August, saying the district can “engineer our way out of the floodplain” (citing a conversation with the plan’s architect), and that he feels the school should stay put.
“The school is the center of the community,” he said. “It is the heart of the community, it’s the identity.”