Members of the State Board of Education have jawboned the state school construction board into taking yet another look at how much money the Aspen Community School will have to put up to get funds for replacement of an aging log building.

BEST program illustration
Illustration courtesy of the state’s Capital Construction Assistance Division.

Every August, the state board ratifies the annual list of construction grants recommended by the state Capital Construction Assistance Board, which oversees the Building Excellent Schools Today program.

Approval of the list usually is a formality, but this year the process has been derailed by a legal catch-22 that snagged Aspen Community, a 130-student charter perched on a mountaintop in the rural Woody Creek area south of Aspen.

The school is housed in a 42-year-old log building. School director Skye Skinner told SBE members the school “is an utterly failing facility” and that “in the spring, some classrooms are flooded by snowmelt.”

Aspen Community has made three applications for BEST grants, and the construction board in June included the school on the list of 2013 finalists. But members declined to grant a waiver that would have reduced the amount of matching funds the school had to provide.

The school was seeking support for a $9 million project to replace the log building.

The original match was calculated at 54 percent of the total cost, which would have meant a state grant of $4.2 million. But a new state law that changed matching requirements for charters drove that to 81 percent, something the school was informed about only two weeks before the construction board’s meeting in late June.

The construction board approved the project with a state share of $1.7 million but twice deadlocked 4-4 on motions to grant the school a waiver and keep the match at 54 percent. One board member was absent.

When the construction board met again on July 19 to finalize the list, Vinny Badolato of the Colorado League of Charter Schools asked members to reconsider the waiver, but the board took no action.

The new law was intended to lower matching percentages for many charters, but the revised formula has the opposite effect for Aspen Community.

The league formally appealed to the State Board of Education. Sen. Keith King, R-Colorado Springs and author of the law that changed the matching formula, wrote a letter supporting the appeal.

Members of the state board on Wednesday were clearly sympathetic to Aspen Community, but it also was clear they didn’t want to overrule the construction board.

“It seems to me, if there’s some way for the BEST board to play a role in changing the outcome … that would be the cleanest strategy,” said state board chair Bob Schaffer, a Republican who represents the Fort Collins area.

Schaffer and other state board members repeatedly prodded Lyndon Burnett, a member of the BEST board, to commit to having that board hold a special meeting to once again consider Aspen Community’s waiver request.

Aspen Community School
Aspen Community School

Burnett, who’s also a member of the Agate school board, finally got the message, saying, “That’s fine. We can get a meeting together.”

The nine-member BEST board is in transition, with some members leaving and some new members not yet appointed. So the board currently has only seven voting members.

The timeline for reconsideration is tight. Most of the BEST grant finalists need to hold bond elections to raise their matches, and the deadline for setting those elections is Sept. 6, according to Ted Hughes, director of the state Division of Public School Capital Construction Assistance.

So the BEST board will have to meet again, and the State Board of Education will have to convene – probably by teleconference – to ratify the final list before the end of August.

“I was hoping for a decision” from state board members, Skinner told Education News Colorado. “I’m glad to hear they’re sympathetic. Now we will wait and see.”

The construction board’s original recommended list of major projects totaled about $273 million, including some $184 million in state support. The board also approved 13 smaller grants totaling $9.3 million, including $6.3 million in state funds.

The large-project list, in priority order, includes these schools and districts:

West End (Naturita), Elbert 200, Sheridan, Pikes Peak Board of Cooperative Educational Services, Lake County (Leadville), Platte Valley (Ovid), Hi Plains (Kit Carson County), Dolores, Lamar, Otis, Fort Morgan, Buena Vista, Genoa-Hugo, Fort Lupton, Montezuma-Cortez, Aurora, Aspen Community and Ross Montessori charter in Carbondale.

Four projects are on an alternates list in case one or more of the finalists loses its bond issue and can’t raise the local match. Alternates are Denver, Greeley, Calhan and Salida.

The BEST program receives most of its funding from a portion of revenues generated by state school trust lands. Larger projects are funded by lease-purchase agreements that are paid off over time by state and local funds. Smaller projects are paid for with direct state cash grants that districts combine with their own funds.

The state education board did approve the BEST board’s list of cash-funded smaller projects, which aren’t involved in the Aspen Community problem.