School board eyes $98 million upgrades

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Leaders look to put bond on ballot

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  • A map of Gunnison Community School shows plus signs wherever a proposed improvement would be made.
    A map of Gunnison Community School shows plus signs wherever a proposed improvement would be made.

A two-year design process and more than a dozen meetings between architects, administrators, parents and teachers culminated Monday evening into a plan for district-wide upgrades that would total $98 million.

RTA Architects, a Colorado Springs firm that specializes in hospitals, schools and retail spaces, presented the plans to the Gunnison Watershed School District school board. The price tag prompted board members to discuss whether it was appropriate to nearly double the construction costs put forth in a 2019 district master plan.

School bond consultants followed the architectural presentation with information on how the district might issue debt to pay for the overhaul and what the project might add to property tax bills.

Some of the most significant changes proposed by the architects were updates to the mechanical systems at Gunnison Community School and additions to Crested Butte Community School to handle an expected enrollment increase of 1,000 students by 2030.

RTA created a public website to detail the proposed upgrades at each campus. School board President Courtney Fullmer invited the public to view and comment on the online plans, saying in a letter posted to the site “This is not an easy decision, nor one taken lightly, and we honor your input as we move forward.”

At Lake School the plans entail resurfacing of the playground, more shade structures there and reorganization of district offices.

A second sports field would be added to Gunnison Community School, playgrounds would be improved and parking lots would be upgraded. Administrative offices would be moved to give staff better views of the parking lot and building entry area. Lockers would be rearranged to open usable space between classrooms.

Gunnison High School would see a new sports field concessions building while the Pathways building would have new culinary and hospitality spaces as well as a health care lab. There would be dedicated outdoor space for outdoor education as well as a storage area. The changes would entail expanding the size of the Pathways building.

Crested Butte Community School would grow with additions to both the elementary (north) and high school (south) ends of the building. The cafeteria would be enlarged. Spaces would be added for more science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) activities, and there would be a new yoga room. High school and elementary administrative offices would be moved to the additions so that administrators could have better views of entrances.

School board Treasurer Dave Taylor asked the architects how they could reconcile the $98,661,150 price tag with the $58 million cost identified in the 2019 district master plan.

“We absolutely need, with the busting at the seams, more space at CB, and I believe our community is very supportive of education, but the reality of being a school board member and looking to our community to fund this is what we can sell,” Taylor said.

Board member Tyler Martineau praised the architects for their community input process even if that resulted in much higher cost estimates.

“They have identified and responded to needs that maybe weren’t so clear when the master plan was done,” Martineau said. “But it’s pretty important at the outset to have a list of everything. That’s what you have in front of you.

“Dave you’re right on in that now we have to face the economic realities, and we have to communicate with our community, and what they feel they can support and afford,” Martineau continued.

Economic realities then became the center of the conversation. Todd Snidow with the investment company Stifel presented how a $95 million election bond would affect the district and taxpayers over a 25- or 20-year term.

If a 25-year bond were approved this year, the increased district mill levy would annually add $29.59 to residential property tax bills per $100,00 of value and would add $120.03 to commercial property tax bills per $100,000 of value.

For a 20-year bond, the increased mill levy would annually add $41.51 to residential property tax bills per $100,000 of value and would add $168.37 to commercial property tax bills per $100,000 of value.

Consultant Paul Haney presented to the school board on what it would take to put the bond issue before voters in either 2021 or 2022. Hanley has worked with the district in the past to pass a bond in 2008 and to refinance in 2014.

Having a measure in 2021 would address the urgency of the needs which would in turn be addressed sooner, Hanley said.

“You’ve done the heavy lifting with the architect, so you guys have done a lot of the homework needed so far,” Hanley said.

Construction costs are expected to be cheaper in 2022, he said, and if the measure fails in 2021, they could put it on the ballot again in 2022.

But 2021 could bring COVID-19-related challenges to the passage. Getting the word out about the measure could be tricky, Hanley said, due to social distancing protocols. He added COVID-19’s impact on the economy may make voters hesitant to vote on a tax increase. Hanley said most election years also include other tax measures, making competition tough.

Data have shown that coordinated election years, such as 2021, have lower voter turnout rates for the 18-49 age demographic, Hanley said, which may impact passage as a lower percentage of individuals with children in schools will show up.

Voters at the polls tend to be older during gubernatorial elections, such as the one scheduled for 2022, which is an upside for that year. Impacts from COVID-19 are expected to be under control by then, making in person outreach possible and positive local economy outlooks.

Some downsides in waiting until 2022 is it further delays updates to the facilities, and could also send the message that the needs are not urgent, Hanley said.

If the measure fails, the next year they could attempt to pass it would be in 2024.

Taylor asked how much political affiliation could play into the measure, citing the county’s last election being won by Democrats “across all races.”

Hanley said data have shown Democrats to historically be most in favor of tax increases, followed by unaffiliated voters and then Republicans.

Martineau followed up by asking how local businesses factor into the discussion on the increase, especially since many are facing financial uncertainty due to the pandemic.

“They will need to be part of the discussion, and there’s definitely going to be pushback,” Hanley said.

(Roberta Marquette and Sam Liebl can be contacted at 970.641.1414.)

SEE THE PLANS

To see RTA Architect’s plans for the Gunnison Watershed School District improvements, visit https://rtaarchitects.conn/gwsd-facilities-digital-open-house