MONTROSE – Despite energy-efficient upgrades to public schools within the Montrose County School District RE-1J now saving $22,000 a month in operating expenses, the savings pale in comparison to the numbers released this week detailing the immediate and long-term needs on campuses districtwide with price tags running into the tens of millions.
According to a facility assessment projection presented to the RE-1J board at this week’s meeting, most schools in the district need repairs and/or upgrades that amount to a $22.8 million price tag.
The report does discern between the most pressing needs versus those projected for the next five years and those to be determined in years to come.
Immediate needs range from a new sprinkler system at Centennial Middle School to a five-year asbestos removal plan for Oak Grove Elementary, a new roof for Montrose High School and emergency lighting at Cottonwood Elementary School, to name just a few.
The district recently purchased property near Northside Elementary School, for possible construction of a new Early Childhood Center.
Columbine Middle School is the priority, board members and staff agreed at Tuesday’s meeting, although replacing the 60-year-old school will cost roughly $13.5 million and could require a bond initiative. The last major upgrade to the school came in 2008, when eight new classrooms were built – at a cost of $1.3 million. On the good-news front: the roof over the band room at Columbine is no longer leaking.
Columbine is a sensitive issue, and the board is working with community members to figure out how best to replace the school while at the same time working towards a mil levy override this fall that pays for more teachers and technology. “I don’t think the tax money is there,” board member Seth Felix said of the possibility of a bond for Columbine. “We need to find some help, and we need to investigate different funding routes.”
Board member Gayle Johnson said she “gets a lot of heat” about the Columbine issue from district voters, who do, however, largely favor the proposed $2.9-million-a-year mil levy slated for the classroom expenditures and for improving student performance.
“We have to be creative enough in Montrose and Olathe to fix this problem locally, and not just kick this down the road,” said District Superintendent Mark MacHale. “Every year that we don’t spend our money on these, they get more expensive.”
MacHale said the district and the school board need to come together to lobby the state legislature for help in replacing Columbine. “Let’s really pick up those phones as board members and make those calls,” he said.
The board concluded that any new schools constructed must be designed for future population growth, and not just the needs of the current population. Since 2009, enrollment in district schools has climbed to a total of 6,200, in a district originally designed to handle 5,300 students, 52 percent of whom qualify for the free- or reduced-lunch program.
Property Services Supervisor Jason Arebalos said the district needs to have frank discussions with the community about Columbine, and create a plan for the next few years. “We need to focus on these needs,” he said, “and just have people talk it out.
“At least we would have a foundation to work toward.”
Since 2003, the district has spent approximately $20,156,332 on building upgrades in various schools and support buildings. But today, MacHale said, getting every student out of modular buildings and into concrete school building would double the costs currently projected for facility upgrades. “We have a lot of modulars,” he said. “And they are only supposed to have a lifespan of 20 years.”
The district has modular buildings now that date back to the 1980s; those purchased in 1995 (at $64,000 apiece) have just a 20-year lifespan.
The possibility of replacing Montrose High School came up at Tuesday’s meeting, but all parties agreed that project is “way down the road,” and would, if embarked upon today, cost an estimated $50-$60 million. The student population at MHS has now reached 1,300.
The last time the district bought any new vehicle other than a bus was in 2002, and concerns regarding staff safety when traveling for training have prompted officials to shop locally for new vehicles. Part of the mil levy override going before voters in November calls for increases for professional development for all district teachers and staff, including training, which can take staff members to Denver several times a year. “We don’t want to ask our staff to use their cars,” MacHale said.
Last year district staff drove over 45,000 miles for mandatory training. If it passes, the November mil levy would fund the addition of 27 new teachers and staff, necessitating the purchase of two new vehicles this year.
“We kicked this around last year; we kicked it around the year before. We’ve kicked this dead horse for a long time, I’m ready to go with it,” said board member Phoebe Benziger, regarding vehicle purchases. The board decided to purchase one vehicle, and will shop at local dealerships.