To build or not to build – the $62 million question
EAGLE COUNTY – The questions are clear. The answers aren’tThe Eagle County School District has a couple of elementary schools at, or near, their capacity now. Battle Mountain High School is starting to fill, too. Meanwhile, Minturn Middle School is now less than half-full, which affects everything from operating costs to classes offered to kids.The questions include:• Are new schools needed?• Are district taxpayers willing to pay for them?• How much student shuffling and school boundary juggling will parents accept?Those and other questions were the focus of the district’s “Coming Attractions” meetings last month. Most of the 230 people who attended the meetings came from the east end of the county, which, not coincidentally, is where most of the district’s current capacity problems are.The meetings let district officials explain current and coming problems, and gave parents and others a chance to talk about possible solutions.From those meetings, program director Melinda Gladitsch and other staff members put together a list of four options, which were shown to the Eagle County School Board Wednesday.No decisions have been made yet, and the public will get another look at the options at meetings on March 7 at Battle Mountain High School and March 8 at Gypsum Creek Middle School. None of the plans will begin until fall of 2006 at the earliest.Cost of the options ran the gamut from virtual pocket change to multimillion-dollar bond issues. All four also involve some degree of boundary changes for elementary schools, a topic almost guaranteed to get at least a few pulses racing.The option likely to upset the most people was the first presented: Closing Meadow Mountain Elementary School in Eagle-Vail.That option, which includes moving fifth graders into middle school, would allow Battle Mountain to expand into Meadow Mountain’s space, at a cost of somewhere between $2 and $7 million.
Students would be moved from Meadow Mountain to Avon Elementary and Red Sandstone Elementary in Vail.”We might really see a downvalley exodus if we do this,” said school board member Louise Funk, who represents Eagle-Vail. Superintendent John Brendza said the idea is one of several options, raised primarily to spark discussion.Expanding the middleAnother plan sure to spark discussion is an idea to create a five-grade split middle school, with fifth and sixth grade students going to Minturn, and seventh, eighth and ninth graders going to Berry Creek Middle School in Edwards. That plan would free up space at both elementary and high schools, while filling up currently unused classroom space at Minturn, which now has fewer than 200 students, less than half its capacity.It would also require one elementary school boundary change, with students from Lake Creek Village in Edwards going to Avon Elementary School. “We would still have relatively small schools, and it would increase opportunities for kids,” Brendza said. “It would get both middle schools over 300 kids.”Due to state per-student funding rules, a 300-student school can make more programs available than smaller schools, Brendza said.This option is by far the least expensive, with an estimated $5,000 per year in transportation costs for an after-school bus to take ninth graders to high school activities at Battle Mountain.While moving grades around solves capacity problems and makes Minturn a more efficient facility, there are some problems.”We don’t know how many teachers would move, and how many I’d have to move,” said Mike Gass, the district’s director of secondary curriculum. The move could also be a disappointment for the first crop of ninth graders, who were expecting to go to high school, not face another year in middle school.
The school board looked at another pair of options that require new buildings, and, by extension, tax increases to pay off bond issues.The least expensive of those options is building a new elementary school at a still-undetermined location.That plan would close Meadow Mountain and expand Battle Mountain into the elementary school space. The total cost would be between $16 and $21 million, depending on the cost of renovating the elementary school.Big bucksBy far the most expensive option would be building a new Battle Mountain High School, probably in Edwards. That new school would have a capacity of about 1,100 students. In addition, a new Red Canyon High School and a “career center” would be built in the western valley.That plan carries a potential price tag of between $55 and $62 million.While high schoolers would get a sparkling new state-of-the-art facility, Gladitsch pointed out some drawbacks beyond the cost.The biggest drawback is that the plan would leave a large, and still functional school empty. Another potential complication is that Battle Mountain sits on property owned by the State Land Board, which manages hundreds of thousands of acres of land in the state.That board manages its holdings for the benefit of education, but property not used for schools can, and sometimes is, sold for private development. Closing the existing Battle Mountain could mean the district would have to give up at least a large portion of the site.Another problem is getting bond issues passed by voters. Over the last 20 years, voters have defeated two bond proposals for new schools on their first passes through the system. Both issues, which included schools or school renovations at both ends of the valley, were passed on their second attempts.A matter of need
Then there’s the matter of fiscal responsibility.The Eagle County School District has about 5,000 students, who are served by 16 schools.”A typical similar sized district has six schools,” Brendza said.Even considering that the district serves a spread-out geographic area, it might be time to reconsider the old philosophy of building smaller schools, he said.”We’ve built a lot, and we’ve been supported,” Brendza said. “But a lot of people now way ‘Use the space you’ve got.'”Looking over Gladitsch’s presentation, district finance director Karen Strakbein said any building proposal would have to overcome one gigantic hurdle.”We can’t go to the voters based on need,” Strakbein said. “We can’t say, ‘We’re going to drop four modulars there if we don’t build.'”Whether or not the district asks voters to build anything now, new buildings are on the horizon.”Our population may double by 2025,” Brendza said. “If so, we’re going to have go to the voters within the next five years. We may be building more than we ever imagined in 10 to 12 years.”Staff Writer Scott N. Miller can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 613, or email@example.com.Vail Daily, Vail Colorado