Hurdles lie ahead for BEST finalists

A state board on Friday awarded preliminary major building grants to 18 districts and schools, but the winners have a ways to go before they see the money.

“This is not the final list,” cautioned chair Mary Wickersham as the State Capital Construction Board wrapped up two-and-a-half days of meetings.

After a financial review, the board will meet again in mid-July to make its final recommendations for awarding the Building Excellent Schools Today or BEST grants. Ultimate approval of the list is up to the State Board of Education when it meets in early August.

Even after they jump those hurdles, 12 of the projects will be in the hands of voters in November when they decide on the bond issues necessary to raise local matching funds.

“It will be a challenge for all of us,” said Sheridan Superintendent Michael Clough, whose district won a $29.5 million grant. The district has to raise a $6.5 million match through a bond issue.

Sheridan received a BEST award last year but had to forfeit it after voters rejected a bond proposal.

“I feel much more confidant this year,” Clough said, saying the 2012 bond proposal is simpler and smaller.

In 2011, a dozen districts asked their voters for BEST matches. Six passed and six failed (see story).

Skye Skinner, executive director of the Aspen Community School, has a different matching problem.

The charter school, a 42-year-old log building perched on a mountain near Woody Creek north of Aspen, won a $1.7 million state grant Friday. The school’s original match was calculated at 54 percent of the $9 million cost, which would have meant a state grant of $4.2 million. But a brand-new state law that changes matching requirements for charters drove that to 81 percent.

The board deadlocked 4-4 on a motion to grant the school a waiver and keep the match at 54 percent. Mike Maloney, one of the board’s nine members was absent because of the wildfire in Colorado Springs. He’s facilities manager for District 11.

“I cannot image how we can make the match,” Skinner told Education News Colorado, calling even 54 percent “a huge stretch.”

Ironically, the new law was intended to lower matching percentages for most – but not all – charters. “It didn’t work out so well for us,” Skinner said with a faint smile.

The board recommended major projects with a total cost of about $273 million, including some $184 million in state support, a bit higher than the $178.5 ceiling the board informally set.

The board also gave tentative approval to 13 smaller grants totaling $9.3 million, including $6.3 million in state funds.

Major projects

Projects are listed in order of priority as set by the board. All projects except the Pikes Peak BOCES, Lamar, Fort Morgan, Aurora and the two charters will require voter approval of bond issues to raise local matching money.

West End – $22 million for a new PK-12 school to replace a 1938 high school in Nucla and a 1971 building in Naturita. State share is $12.5 million for the 340-student district.
Elbert 200 – $20.6 million project to build a new PK-12 school in the 200-student district, replacing a 1936 building. $17.3 million state share.

Sheridan– $29.5 million project to replace an early childhood center, renovate a middle school and demolish an older elementary school building. State share is $23 million.

Pikes Peak Board of Cooperative Educational Services – $12.5 million to replace a 1968 building for special needs children and alternative students. The BOCES, which serves 120, plans to re-purpose another existing building. $11.9 million state share.

Lake County – $26 million for a high school renovation and addition. State share is $15.1 million. The Leadville-based district has 1,224 students.

Platte Valley– $15 million renovation of historic Revere High School in Ovid. The building was designed by noted Denver architect Temple Buell, who also designed several DPS schools and the original Cherry Creek Shopping Center. $9.3 million state share. The district has about 120 students.

Hi Plains – $17 million to build a new PK-12 school for the 130-student district in Kit Carson County. An elementary school that will be replaced was built in 1917. State share is $14.2 million.

Dolores – $6 million for various improvements to two schools in the 293-student district. State share is $2.6 million.

Lamar – $2.2 million for boiler replacements at three schools in the 1,670-student district. State share is $1.7 million.

Otis – $20.6 million to build a new PK-12 school to replace a 1984 elementary school and a 1922 junior/senior high school in the 190-student district. State share is $17.8 million.

Fort Morgan – $1.4 million project to replace high school boiler and upgrade heating and air conditioning. State share is $1 million. The district has about 3,200 students.

Buena Vista – $6.7 million project to replace the primary wing of the elementary school in the 1,000-student district. State share is $2.3 million.

Genoa-Hugo – $16.4 million project to renovate and expand the PK-12 school in the 185-student district. State share is $9.8 million.

Fort Lupton – $10.6 million in renovations, most safety-related, to a 1932 middle school. State share is $5.5 million. The district has 2,470 students.

Montezuma-Cortez – $42 million for replacement of the 1966 high school in the 2,830-student district. State share is $22.7 million.

Aurora – $1.8 million for replacement of fire sprinklers at Aurora Central High School. State share is $1.4 million.

Aspen Community School– $9 million for construction of a new building that will allow the charter and its 130 students to move out of the log building. State share is $1.7 million.

Ross Montessori – $12.8 million project to build a new school on a new site to replace modular units at the 200-student Carbondale charter. It received a grant last year but had to forfeit it after failing to raise its match. State share is $11.8 million.

Alternative projects

Four larger projects were selected as alternatives in case finalists don’t raise their matches. They are:

  • Denver – $6.8 million project for plumbing, electrical, roof and auditorium upgrades at 87-year-old South High School
  • Greeley – $29.2 million to build a new middle school to replace obsolete, asbestos-riddled John Evans Middle School, a building of circular “pods” built in 1964
  • Calhan – $2.2 million for safety and security upgrades in the rural El Paso County district
  • Salida – $13.6 million project to replace an elementary school

Out of the running

Four other applications that made the board’s short list weren’t selected, including projects for Twin Peaks charter in Boulder, projects in Limon and Kim, plus a second Lake County bid.

Eliminated earlier during the board’s three days of meetings were larger applications from four charter schools, Caprock Academy in Grand Junction, Corridor Community Academy in Bennett, Indian Peaks in Granby and the Southwest Open School in Cortez, along with an application from the South Conejos district in Antonito.

What happens next

BEST projects are paid for in two ways. In the past, most larger projects have been financed with lease-purchase arrangements called certificates of participation. State and local funds are pooled to pay off the certificates over several years. Smaller projects have been paid for with state cash and local funds.

Certificates of participation are tightly regulated by tax rules, so a panel of financial experts will meet in early July to evaluate which projects meet those requirements. Based on the panel’s advice, the board may change the funding method for some projects, and that could have a domino effect that might bump some finalists off the list.

The State Board of Education will have the final say on the lists, and observers will be watching the August meeting with interest. Some board members, primarily Republican Marcia Neal, have been critical of BEST’s past levels of spending. The program receives a portion of revenues from state school trust lands, and Neal feels more of that revenue should flow to the trust’s permanent fund, the interest from which could be used to support future state education needs.

The permanent fund has been flat at about $600 million for several years. That’s because, despite growing oil and gas revenues from state lands, the legislature has decided to use most of those revenues for BEST and to backfill general state support of schools. Earlier this year, there was discussion of legislation to cap BEST spending, but no bill emerged during the 2012 session.