After a lengthy debate, the Dolores school board voted Thursday night to pursue moving the campus to a new site for a large-scale facilities upgrade.
The board also voted to put a bond initiative on the November ballot to provide matching funds for a state grant the district hopes will fund the project. The vote came after community forums, surveys, a tabled decision in December and talks with state officials and engineers.
The vote to seek a new site was 3-2, but board members in favor of the move said that a new campus site would allow for possible future expansion. While the decision will affect the town of Dolores, ultimately they were entrusted with doing what was best for students, they said.
“We’re going to need more space,” said board President Kay Phelps. “And even though it’s hard to resist that need to be nostalgic, I don’t think that’s realistic. We need to look ahead, we need to look at the future.”
They don’t know where the new school site would be located, although Phelps said they have a few places in mind. Board members Lenetta Shull and Maegan Crowley joined Phelps in voting for the move, while Vice President Casey McClellan and Clay Tallmadge voted against it.
“I think we’re going to spend a lot of time and money chasing the bond that is not going to have the support of the community,” said McClellan.
Talks over Re-4A facilities improvements ramped up this school year. Initially, the district looked to renovate the school at the existing site, with hopes of securing a Building Excellent Schools Today grant from the state to do so.
In August, the board approved a master plan to guide the BEST grant application – due this past January or February – that featured new elements, including a new secondary school and a more secure perimeter.
But in the fall, engineers from the Colorado Department of Education and 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 then looked into various parcels of land near Dolores for a school site, especially at a few parcels above Joe Rowell Park.
The estimated costs of the two options were presented at a November community forum and came out to $45 million for staying on-site and $57 million for moving locations. Regardless of the option, though, the district would seek the maximum amount from a bond this coming November: $8.2 million is the bond capacity.
Despite the changing plans, the district considered pursuing the BEST grant, but in December voted to delay the decision after facing public opposition.
Now, they aim to apply for a BEST grant next winter, meaning that they have two shots to get the required matching bond passed; if the bond doesn’t pass this November, the district can try once more in November 2021.
Since Re-4A would seek the bond capacity no matter which option was pursued, both choices would affect taxpayers equally. The discussion Thursday, then, focused largely on which choice voters would support.
The impact on the town of Dolores was one consideration, as the school has been the heart of the community for decades. Shull said that multiple generations of her family had graduated from Dolores High School.
“I love my campus,” Shull said. “There’s a lot of memories there. But I don’t want my grandchildren not to have the same right that I did, because when I went to school, it was a fairly new campus.”
Tallmadge highlighted the school’s role as being closely intertwined with the town’s community and identity. Although he lives in the county with his family, they travel into Dolores for school every day, giving them a sense of belonging, he said.
“We don’t say we’re from Montezuma County, we say we’re from Dolores,” Tallmadge said. “It’s been something that’s brought us into the community.”
But another consideration was the schools’ capacity to keep up with 21st century learning practices, larger athletic facilities and possible expansion. A new site could also better draw in and retain students, Phelps said.
“The Dolores High School has lost a significant number of enrollments these past few years,” she said. Enrollment numbers affect the funding districts receive from the state.
Several educators showed up to support for building a school in a new location, saying that the existing facilities are not sufficient for high-quality learning and teaching, and that if the current site was renovated, the ongoing construction would disrupt classes.
Paraprofessional and parent Emily Adie said the work environment has become “increasingly unpleasant and hazardous” for students and staff because of poor ventilation and faulty wires.
“I see that students lack the technology to prepare for their future, for their colleges, and for their careers,” Adie said. She argued too that high-quality infrastructure supports stronger student outcomes.
Former Re-4A interim superintendent Phil Kasper spoke, saying he would fully support the board’s decision once they voted, but that he too was in favor of a new site, especially in order to keep up with demands for new programs and offerings.
“The needs of schools increase with time,” he said. “They vary. Not only with leadership at the local level, but leadership at the state level.”
Susan Lisak, director of the Dolores Chamber of Commerce, was the one dissenting audience voice at the meeting.
“It will affect the town,” she said. “The school here is what keeps some of the businesses alive in the wintertime.”
Along those lines, during the board discussion McClellan pointed to survey results that were more divided on the issue, and which he felt leaned toward staying in town. He pointed to the “16 pages of comments” from the survey.
“There is a lot of opposition here,” McClellan said.
Ultimately, though, the board majority voted in favor of the move, after a recess and a few minutes of emotional deliberation by Shull.
“We have got to work with our town,” she said after voting in favor of the move.
Following this decision, the school board also voted to put the bond initiative on the November ballot, and to pursue “marketing efforts” to help get the community on board. The vote was 4-1, with McClellan dissenting.