Tear it down, or not tear it down?
That was the question this week as city and school officials clashed again over the outcome of the former Montezuma-Cortez High School.
Outgoing Montezuma-Cortez Re-1 Superintendent Alex Carter remained defiant at a school board workshop on Tuesday, Jan. 19, arguing that he never promised that the former Seventh Street high school building would be demolished upon completion of the new high school on Sligo Street. He claimed that the media “incorrectly reported” plans to demolish the building.
From the back of the room, Mayor Karen Sheek interrupted Carter’s presentation, stating that a 2014 memorandum of understanding between the district and city proved otherwise.
“During the bond campaign of 2012, it was never promised that we would demolish that building,” a red-faced Carter told Sheek.
“You signed it,” Sheek said, holding up the agreement.
“Mayor Sheek, can anyone walk into your meeting and interrupt it?” Carter asked, burying his head into his hands.
As the hourlong discussion over the state of district facilities continued, tension didn’t ease. Proclaiming that he held 63 community meetings, Carter said he developed a strategic communications protocol when trying to persuade voters to approve the 2012 bond measure to help fund construction of the new Montezuma-Cortez High School.
“We consistently said if we can find a use for this building to save us the cost of tearing it down, we would love to discuss that,” Carter said. “I remember saying on 10 different occasions that we would entertain someone to come in and offer a dollar for that building.”
In a 2012 FAQ document, currently available on the Re-1 website, the last question asked: “What will happen to the existing MCHS structure?”
“The BEST grant language application requires language describing a plan to deal with the existing structure and site once construction of the new facility is completed,” the document states. “While demolition of the 1967 structure is the plan cited in the BEST grant application, the school board is willing to consider other options if they present a plan both agreeable to RE-1 district and the community at large.”
On Tuesday, Carter said that the 2014 agreement with the city was made to receive water at a discount during construction. He then admitted that the contract also included a clause to flatten the old high school by the end of 2015.
“Up until March of this year (sic), it never occurred to me that we wouldn’t be abating and demolishing that building,” Carter said.
Last spring, environmental consultants determined that the old high school contained asbestos, which needed to be removed before demolition, but Carter said he relied on a district liaison’s opinion that Re-1 could persuade environmental regulatory officials to allow demolition as planned.
In August, city officials were subsequently notified that demolition would be impossible because of abatement costs. In response, municipal leaders demanded that the district obtain demolition and abatement bids. Carter said that initial testing never revealed that the concrete-block walls at the old Seventh Street facility were covered with friable asbestos. He said the environmental concern was discovered in spring of 2015.
In an Aug. 11 workshop, Sheek asked Carter why the district didn’t have adequate asbestos testing done from the start.
Carter replied that the district relied on environmental testing that dated to the 1980s when developing its proposal. He also said the state wouldn’t increase funding from the BEST grant program or consider an appeal on the asbestos determination by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment
According to the district, four abatement bids, ranging from $1.3 to almost $2.5 million, were received last month, and one demolition bid of nearly $1.1 million was secured. The district had slightly more than $900,000 budgeted for both abatement and demolition.
At the workshop, Re-1 board president Jack Schuenemeyer backed up Carter’s assertion that no promises were ever made to demolish the old high school. Again, Sheek disagreed, recalling a conversation that took place in addition to the memorandum. That meeting took place in 2012 at the First National Bank, Sheek said.
“I can remember Alex saying, ‘We are going to cannibalize that building,’” Sheek said.
Schuenemeyer quickly interjected, stating that the district needed to decide how to move forward.
Carter subsequently recommended his “best solution,” advising that the district’s administrative offices could relocate from the Downey School on Elm Street into a wing of the old high school. The decision could then allow the Children’s Kiva Montessori School to transfer to the Downey School, Carter said.
Carter also told board members that officials with the Piñon Project had expressed an interest in consolidating its properties and moving into another wing of the old high school. Carter said a portion of the old schoolhouse could also be used for food storage and warehouse space.
“That’s the vision I have,” Carter said.
Carter then added that the football field at the old high school, a 10-acre expanse, could be made into a city park, for example.
“That would be a valuable parcel of land,” Carter said.
He then apologized to Sheek, stating that he was under a lot of stress after informing staff late last week of his resignation. Sheek said she understood, and continued to follow up her initial point.
“Sadly, I think you’re getting ready to leave, and you’re going to leave this community with a giant albatross around our necks,” Sheek told Carter.
“That’s one way to look at it,” he replied.
“We’re not going to allow that to happen,” Schuenemeyer added.
As the discussion drew to a close, one resident among the two dozen in attendance, addressed the mercury contained in an auxiliary gym at the former schoolhouse. “I think the building is going to become a mausoleum of toxic waste,” the man said.
Carter dismissed the claim, stating that the gym had been locked down for more than two years, and no one was in danger of mercury poisoning if the gym remained blocked from public access.
Although the board took no official action on Tuesday, the board instructed Carter to obtain cost estimates to remodel the building for future use.
According to the district’s 2012 BEST grant application, maintenance costs were projected at $60,000 annually. The grant application also noted the 142,000-square-foot structure had roof drainage issues, high fire safety concerns, poor indoor air quality and a faulty electrical system that needed to be replaced. In 2012, complete renovation estimates of the old school were projected at $36 million.
The old high school building was retired with an earth-friendly, modern two-story 152,000-square-foot academic structure last fall. The project totaled nearly $41.4 million, funded by a $22.2 million Colorado Department of Education BEST grant and an $18.9 million local 20-year bond measure.