Vail Daily column: Buildings for the future
One million and two hundred thousand — this is the number of square-feet of building space maintained by Eagle County Schools.
Coloradans face some tough choices when it comes to constructing and maintaining their school facilities (called capital expenses). One option is to ask the voters to pass something called a bond. In essence, this means that the taxpayers agree to take on debt, which is repaid over a period of years (usually 20) so that schools can construct new facilities. Bonds work kind of like home construction loans in that you get the money up front and pay back the debt (with interest).
The last bond passed in Eagle County was in 2007 for $128 million. This bond paid for things like the construction of Battle Mountain High School and June Creek Elementary School. It also paid for a number of improvements in all the schools including a fairly major remodel of Eagle Valley High School.
Another mechanism schools can use to raise funds for capital needs is through something called a Certificate of Participation. To explain simply, this is sort of a lease-purchase agreement where a school district sells off one of its buildings and then lease-purchases it back over several years. Eagle County Schools entered into one of these COP agreements in 2010 to make the renovations to the current Homestake Peak School (and to build up cash as there was the threat of a state constitutional amendment that year which would have devastated the local school budget).
COPs are not without controversy as they are often seen as a way to circumvent the TABOR amendment requirements that voters approve government debts. Also, they are usually repaid out of a school district’s general fund — meaning you have fewer teachers and lower salaries while the COP is repaid.
The third option is to use the school district’s general fund to construct and maintain schools. This is a tough option as well. For example, the operating budget for Eagle County Schools (the money we have to educate and provide services to kids) is about $62 million. The cost to build Battle Mountain High School (a wonderful facility for our kids and community that is getting a ton of use) was about $60 million. Immediately, you can see the problem that would arise if we tried to do any substantial capital work on Colorado’s relative anemic school funding levels.
On top of just the costs of new school construction, there are significant needs around the maintenance and renovation of our current facilities. During the course of the recession, our school district froze or reduced maintenance and upkeep spending to bare minimum levels in order to try to protect instructional staff and programs from cuts. As a result, we have over $10 million in deferred maintenance projects — things we’ve put off repairing or replacing and are now trying to limp by with using a break-fix approach.
All of our local schools have some level of need when it comes to renovations, upkeep and repair — but some schools are in worse shape than others. Red Sandstone Elementary and the Eagle Valley Middle/Eagle Valley Elementary campuses are examples of two campuses that were constructed in the 1970s and are in need of some pretty extensive renovation. We also have across the board roofing, ventilation and lighting needs whose repairs could possibly pay for themselves in terms of utility savings. In addition, we’ve got safety/security issues in just about every building in terms of making them state-of-the-art for slowing down or keeping out some outside threat or intruder. It’s not that our buildings are unsafe — it’s that they were designed in a different era.
Over the next few weeks, we will be hosting two community-wide meetings to discuss the state of our buildings and our options going forward. For our upvalley schools, the meeting will be held at Battle Mountain High School on Monday. For downvalley schools, the meeting will be held at Eagle Valley High School on Nov. 17. Both meetings will take place from 5 to 8 p.m. Child care and simultaneous Spanish interpretation will be available.
Our goal at these meetings will be to listen to the community’s input about our facilities and gather ideas and opinions about needs for going forward. While we’ve done our homework and have some ideas and estimates to improve our facilities, our work is to try and put in place a plan for the future that meets our community’s expectations and goals. We hope to see you there!
Jason E. Glass is the superintendent of Eagle County Schools. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.